Technology is advancing by leaps and bounds every year. Companies are constantly coming up with new gadgets and devices that do a variety of different things, from refrigerators with cameras so you can see what you need while at the grocery store to watches that can detect you are sick before you start feeling ill. One popular device that came out in 2014 is the Amazon Echo. You can play music, look up information on the internet, find out the news, or place an order just by speaking a few words to the device. The Amazon Echo is able to do this because it is always listening, at least for the 'wake word' -- in the Echo's case this is usually 'Alexa.' It's the 'always listening' aspect of the Echo that has police in Bentonville, Arkansas interested. They want access to the audio data that the Echo collects to see if there is any evidence that they could use in a murder investigation.
According to 5 News, on November 22, 2015, James Bates reported to authorities that Victor Collins was dead in his hot tub. He stated that Collins and two other men came over to watch a football game the day before, but that when he went to bed, Collins was still in the hot tub alive and hanging out with another. Bates stated that when he awoke a few hours later "he found Collins floating face down in the hot tub." Upon examining the crime scene police noticed signs of a struggle and suspected a cover-up. Collins' death was ruled a "homicide by strangulation with a contributing cause of drowning." Bates was subsequently charged with first-degree murder.
Now detectives are seeking to learn what the Amazon Echo may have heard that night. The device was located on the kitchen counter at Bates' house. According to the New York Times, "[t]he voice-activated device has seven microphones, and is equipped with sensors to hear users from any direction up to about 20 feet." Police have requested that Amazon turn over the "'electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed words, text records and other data' captured by the Echo." So far Amazon hasn't complied with the detective's requests, stating that the company ''objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands.'" However, Benton County prosecuting attorney stated that the company did provide "'some very limited subscriber information.'" Amazon also stated that it wouldn't release the data without being served with the proper legal demand. The prosecuting attorney stated that they had obtained a search warrant and he hoped Amazon would comply with the order.
The request for audio data raises some interesting questions concerning privacy, most importantly, who has the right to access your data? The Times stated that once you use the wake word, "the Echo starts streaming audio to the cloud, where it is secured until the customer permanently deletes it." According to Wired, "Alexa users can find a running list of their queries in the Alexa app." Thus, the data is there for people to go back and check later on, but who else can see it? Is there a right to privacy in the data that these devices collect? If Amazon "uploads Alexa queries to a vast digital warehouse" every hour, can the authorities see that same data?
It will be interesting to see what the outcome of this warrant request is as could have implications in other situations. Google has a similar device called a Google Home and Amazon is planning on incorporating Echo features into Ford vehicles. If law enforcement can access your Echo data at home, can they also access data stored by a Google Home? Or see the data collected by an Echo from your car, say after a crash or if an officer suspects your were driving under the influence? Only time will tell.
If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence, contact DeKalb County DUI Attorney Richard Lawson today.