Gadgets: Did Amazon Echo witness a crime?
Amazon’s Echo smart speaker can tell you the weather or play your favorite song with a simple voice request. Now police want its help so lving a murder, said Amy Wang in The Washington Post. Authorities in Bentonville, Ark., recently served a warrant to Amazon demanding data from an Echo speaker owned by a man accused of killing his friend after a night of drinking at his home. Because the Echo is constantly “listening” for the “wake word” that activates the speaker (usually, “Alexa,” the name of Amazon’s artificially intelligent personal assistant), police believe the device may have captured audio related to the alleged crime. Police have long seized computers, smartphones, and other electronics to aid in investigations, but the case raises fresh questions about digital privacy. “Namely, is there a difference in the reasonable expectation of privacy one should have when dealing with a device that is ‘always on’ in one’s own home?”
What the police are hoping to find is a “bit of a stretch,” technologically speaking, said Noah Kulwin in Vice.com. Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home only record short snippets of audio at a time while listening for their wake word. If no wake word is detected, information is automatically deleted, and that data is not sent to the cloud. When Amazon does record what’s being said, it’s only long enough to capture whatever the user is asking. Odds are, the Echo didn’t pick up anything useful—at least not anything that could be used in court.
Even so, Amazon is refusing to turn over the device’s data to authorities, in the name of customer privacy, said Jake Swearingen in NYMag.com. But this won’t be the last time police make this kind of request. Smart devices like Echo work by understanding who is in your home, and in which room—information that could be pertinent in a criminal case. “It’s not outlandish to imagine a court compelling a company to turn over smart-home data that might be a key piece of evidence in a future trial.”
Ironically, another smart device could actually crack this case, said Alina Selyukh in NPR.org. Investigators have built part of their case on data from a smart water meter, alleging that “an increase in water use in the middle of the night suggests a possible cleanup around the crime scene.” “All of this should offer an important reminder that it’s not always wise to blindly commit to smart devices,” said Jacob Brogan in Slate.com. Our devices now collect huge amounts of information about us in the name of convenience. You may not be planning criminal acts, but that doesn’t change the fact that your data “can be put to surprising ends.”