Can an echo be subpoenaed?
The first of an array of voice-responsive home devices, the Amazon Echo, was found at the residence of a murder suspect and it may hold secrets reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984.” I mean, literally, provide subpoena-able details to a first-degree homicide from a year ago. Or at least that’s the hope of the Bentonville Police Department. The tubular contraption itself has been little more than a paperweight, so since the guy’s not confessing the police are looking to its maker, Amazon, for help.
In a landmark case involving an IoT (Internet of Things) device, an Arkansas judge has issued a warrant to Amazon requesting audio recordings that are transmitted from it, then streamed to the cloud. The recordings would be questions like “Alexa, turn on my music,” or “Alexa, I want to order pizza,” or could be “Alexa, how do I dispose of a body?” Likely not that last one, but the Echo is “always on” awaiting its wake-up word. What it records immediately proceeding “Alexa” or an inadvertent “Alexa” could be enlightening.
Although Amazon has given up some of the suspect’s basic account information and purchase records, they’re declining to release any interaction history they may store remotely. Like Apple, their policy is to protect their customers from overly broad requests.
“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
The Echo is at heart a speaker, but once connected to the internet the user leaves traceable footprints.
“Amazon logs each customer’s Alexa [Amazon’s version of ‘Siri’] requests and activity as a way of helping the overall service to refine its programming.”
But like our home pc, what Echo sends to the cloud can be deleted; however, usage data is a golden goose. For Alexa to raise her IQ over time thereby increase her value, even if Bates washed its memory, Amazon may have retained enough of it to bolster the prosecutor’s theory.
“Deleting the audio files doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gone for good, since Amazon and Google may be using bits of audio files to improve the AI behind their products.”
Disconcerting is Amazon’s disregard for a reasonable expectation of privacy. If an Echo customer wants her audio files erased, keeping even a byte of personal data could be legally challenged. The future of AI technology is bright and Big (brother-like). They’re her words, and she should be able to speak frankly around her toaster without fear its recording could be used against her in a court of law or God forbid the file hacked. IoT technology undeniably has its share of privacy issues and American’s safety is undisputed. We need to figure out how to balance the two.
Because the hot tub case is built heavily on circumstantial evidence, it seems, by the Arkansas prosecutor’s pursuit of Echo’s data, there isn’t enough to indict. However, given the notable details of the murder their proof may have been found in another IoT.
November 22 2015, James Andrew Bates called 911 to report he woke to find his friend floating dead in his hot tub. The Arkansas Crime Lab later determined that the former Georgia cop, Victor Paris Collins, died “by strangulation with a contributing cause of drowning.” Bates contends the evening began with him and three other guys watching a Razorbacks game. Two of the men have corroborating alibies affirming they left by midnight leaving Bates and Collins alone in the house.
“As for Bates, it is ironically a different sort of smart home device that could cook his goose. Per the Information:
‘court records suggest the device prosecutors got more from wasn’t the Alexa but the home’s smart water meter. It showed that someone used 140 gallons of water between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. at Mr. Bates’ house, a much heavier than usual amount. Prosecutors allege that was a result of Mr. Bates using a garden hose to spray down the back patio area from the blood.'”
Bates is out on $350k bond awaiting trial which is set for next year – 2017.
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