Privacy Law

Can Amazon's Alexa provide murder clues? Digital assistants could aid prosecutions

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Amazon Echo

Police in Bentonville, Arkansas, hope that Amazon’s Echo—which answers to the name Alexa—can help them solve a possible murder.

Police served a search warrant on seeking information that may have been recorded by the device on the November night that Victor Collins was found dead in a hot tub outside the home of James Bates, report the Washington Post, Ars Technica and the Information (sub. req.), which was first with the story.

Police noted signs of a struggle. Bates said he fell asleep and discovered Collins’ body when he awoke.

The Echo is activated by someone speaking the word “Alexa,” and sends audio to the cloud, according to Ars Technica. The audio could be briefly retained by Amazon servers, but it’s more likely to be found on the Echo device itself, according to the article.

Police didn’t say what they expected to find on the device, and Amazon said it “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.”

Police also obtained a search warrant for the Echo device as well as for Bates’ cellphone.

University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo doesn’t hold out much hope for Bentonville police in their bid for Echo information, but he does think digital assistants such as the Echo and Google Home might be used by police to solve crimes in the future, the Seattle Times reports.

Calo said the Echo can be turned on accidentally when it mistakes another word for “Alexa.” But the chance of recording something relevant to the alleged hot-tub murder is “so unlikely, it seems to me a big waste of time,” he tells the Seattle Times.

He sees other possibilities, however. Police might try to get a warrant to activate a digital assistant and turn it into a bugging device, he speculated. (It’s unclear if it’s technically possible, however, according to the Seattle Times.) Or police could use the device to check alibis or to use a maps itinerary to establish a checkpoint to arrest a fugitive.

Calo adds that technology companies should resist requests for digital information because they should put their customers first.

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