Amazon Echo, Witness to Murder?

12/29/2016

An Arkansas prosecutor has obtained a search warrant for an Amazon Echo belonging to a murder suspect, hoping the device will reveal evidence that the suspect strangled his friend in a hot tub.  The Amazon Echo is a “smart” speaker and personal assistant device that responds to the name “Alexa.”  Once you say “Alexa” the device will turn on and responds to your verbal commands.  It makes to-do lists, sets alarms, plays music on command, plays audiobooks, provides weather and traffic information in real time, and can be used as a home automation hub.

Police believe the suspect or someone else may have accidentally activated the Echo on the night of the murder and any recordings the Echo made may help solve the crime.  The Echo was used on the night of the murder to play music the police say, but it is unclear if the device was on at the time of the murder. 

The question is, is Alexa always listening and, if she is, are her recordings admissible in court? It is unclear if the Echo can be “accidentally” activated and, if it is, it is unclear if it “overhears” conversations and records them.  Police allege the Echo can hear users talking even while the device is playing music. 

The Echo must, however, store some data because Amazon is refusing to release any data in this case without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on Amazon, according to their statement.  Amazon has not yet disclosed any data from its servers and the Arkansas search warrant is likely insufficient to compel Amazon to do so. 

Courts have only begun to consider this type of data and its admissibility and use in criminal investigations.  Some states have laws against recording conversations without one, or both, or all, participants’ permission.  Other states have no such laws.  Earlier this year the FBI filed a federal lawsuit to compel Apple to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter as part of that criminal investigation.  It is unclear whether a lawsuit will be filed against Amazon in this case, but Amazon’s headquarters, nor the stored data, are not in Arkansas, so they probably do not have to comply with the criminal search warrant issued in Arkansas.  

In this case, ironically, the suspect’s home has a “smart” water meter that showed 140 gallons of water being used between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. the night of the murder.  This is obviously much more than the average amount of use.  Prosecutors believe this water was used by the suspect when he used a garden hose to spray off blood from the patio.