There's no doubt that the Amazon Echo, which responds to the name "Alexa," is cool—but is it also a tool for law enforcement? If you own one of these nifty gadgets—or are thinking of getting one—this is what you should know.
What is the Amazon Echo?
The Amazon Echo is a digital home assistant. It can stream music, changing tunes with just a simple voice command. It also can help you organize your calander, create shopping lists, help you electronically order those items on your shopping list, set timers, and function as an alarm. Its motto is that it is "always listening." and that each new app is essentially teaching it new skills that it can use for your benefit.
Why could it be important to the police?
It's that "always listening" feature that makes it particularly interesting to the police. Police in Bentonville, Arkansas, discovered a host of smart devices, including the Amazon Echo, in the home of a murder suspect. They promptly seized the Echo, just like they would every other electronic device, and then served Amazon with a warrant, claiming that Amazon could be "in possession of records relating to a homicide investigation." Police believe that the Echo may have captured audio of someone being murdered in the home.
What issues does this raise?
While police have routinely seized computers and cellphones to investigate crimes, the idea of a smart-device that's "always listening" in the home brings up new privacy concerns. Do people actually have any—or is buying and installing one of these devices in your home essentially signing away your most basic rights? Historically, people have enjoyed a right to an expectation of privacy within their own homes—but that right didn't necessarily extend to things that they put on a lawfully-seized computer. Otherwise, police would be forced to let evidence of child porn, for example, walk out the door.
Amazon, so far, has stalled, pointing out that the police don't quite understand how the Echo works. It is always listening, but it's listening for it's "awake" word—its name. At that point, it streams the question asked to the cloud and that can later be downloaded for information. So, unless the murder or his victim said the awake word and asked what the weather outside was, it's unlikely that the Echo recorded much of anything.
Companies are resisting efforts by the police.
Just like Apple refused to comply with the FBI's request to unlock a cell phone, Amazon has so far refused to comply with the warrant, saying it is overly broad. Tech companies, in general, are against the use of warrants on these types of devices, simply because they play such a personal part in the lives of the people who own them—people who do expect their interactions to remain private.
In this case, Amazon's help may not end up being necessary—the alleged murder's other smart devices may hold evidence against him. The smart meter that the house uses to record the exact consumption of electricity and water every hour recorded a record usage of water—which police believe was used to spray down the back patio crime scene and remove evidence.
The implications, however, are clear: in the next few years, requests of this kind of electronic information are going to become more regular and the case law hasn't been established. For right now, your home's smart electronics most certainly could be used against you if you're suspected of a crime.
For more information on how evidence gathered up by the police might implicate you in a crime, contact criminal defense, social security, or divorce attorneys in your area.