In what may ultimately lead to a precedent setting case and/or landmark court ruling, police in Arkansas have demanded that Amazon provide them with recordings made by an Amazon Echo device that was located in the home of murder suspect -- and Amazon has refused to honor that request.
Law enforcement agents from Bentonville, Arkansas asked Amazon to turn over to them audio and other records from an Echo digital assistant that was present in the home of James Andrew Bates, who has been charged with killing a man by the name of Victor Collins; Collins' body was found in Bates' hot tub at the location where the Echo was located, and his death was determined to have occurred by strangulation (with subsequent drowning) - a homicide, not an accident.
For those not yet familiar with Amazon's Alexa technology - the devices in the Alexa suite offer a virtual assistant, named Alexa, to whom users speak in order to perform tasks. When a user activates an Alexa device - such as the flagship Amazon Echo - by saying "Alexa," the device records subsequent speech and sends it to Amazon's servers to process a response (it may also relay a few seconds before before the word "Alexa" was said); Alexa sometimes converses almost as if it were human. Amazon does store users' recordings afterward - as it makes prior requests available to users via an Alexa companion smartphone app, but people can delete their recordings if they so desire.
The police department made the demand from Amazon as its investigators hope that there may be information or evidence to gather from the Alexa recordings. So far, however, Amazon has refused to provide the data, stating that it will not release customer information without "a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us" and that Amazon objects to "overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."
Of course, the Echo found at the scene could have been inspected by law enforcement as part of their evidence collection at the Bates' home. As one would expect, therefore, police did extract as much information from the Echo device itself as they could; technically speaking, however, there is little information stored on Echoes or other Alexa-suite devices (there is only a small buffer that likely holds well under a minute of audio), which would explain law enforcement's request to Amazon.
Should the Bentonville police department obtain a warrant and demand the recording there could be major implications: Echo devices often sit inside people's homes where there is clearly a right to privacy - a right that may be, at least in part, protected by the United States Constitution. While it is true that someone who uses a device that he or she knows sends recording of his or her voice to a third-party business (like Amazon) may be willing to surrender such privacy to a third-party, does that truly mean that he or she surrenders all privacy rights with regard to that data? Furthermore, what about any non-Alexa-related recordings that were, for whatever reason, made by the Echo after the user made a request from Alexa but while Alexa was still listening? What if children used the Alexa? And what about recordings of other people in the background that Alexa might have picked up while processing someone else's voice commands? What if those parties were unaware that someone was using Alexa at the time? Or what if those conversations were privileged (e.g., phone call to a lawyer, conversation between spouses, etc.)? And could Alexa recordings be demanded in cases of civil suits?
Bates' lawyer, Kimberly Weber, has expressed her concern: "I have a problem that a Christmas gift that is supposed to better your life can be used against you. It's almost like a police state," she said.
Lynn Terwoerds, founder of the Voice Privacy Alliance initiative of the Executive Women's Forum, told me that "There are serious privacy concerns with this kind of non-specific warrant (i.e., the one obtained by the Bentonville police department), and it is especially troubling when it appears there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how an Amazon Echo actually functions. We have to fight against the myth of Echo listening in on our every word and sending that data to Amazon - it's simply untrue."
Personally, I doubt that the market for Alexa devices will be significantly impacted by the current case - people want the convenience and features that Alexa offers. That said, expect to see new legislation and case law develop about users' privacy rights as voice controlled systems and IoT devices proliferate.
In the meantime keep in mind that any information recorded about you by any phone, tablet, cloud service, car, voice-controlled system, or other smart device, may be transmitted to a third party and could ultimately be subject to government inspection. Also, if you have an Amazon Echo, Tap, or Dot - you can turn off its microphones by pressing the device's mute button, making it unable to hear anything that you say until you are ready to use it.