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Alexa Murder Case Witness: Amazon Echo Smart Speaker?

Image: Alexa Murder Case Witness: Amazon Echo Smart Speaker?

A prosecutor investigating the death of a man whose body was found in a hot tub wants to expand the probe to include a potential new kind of evidence: the suspect’s Amazon Echo smart speaker. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

By    |   Thursday, 29 Dec 2016 06:11 AM

Whether an Amazon Echo device may serve as a witness to a murder is in question after police in Arkansas asked Amazon for recordings from the device as part of an investigation.

Amazon has declined the requests of Bentonville, Arkansas, police to provide audio and other recordings from the Echo digital assistant in the home of James Andrew Bates, where Victor Collins was found dead in a hot tub last year, USA Today reported.

Bates is accused of murdering Collins, who died of strangulation and drowning, then washing blood off his hot tub and patio with a garden hose. Among evidence in the case, the home's smart water meter shows 140 gallons of water was used in the home from 1 to 3 a.m.

Amazon provided information about Bates' account and purchase history, but declined to provide recordings from the device, saying it objects to "overly broad or inappropriate demands as a matter of course," USA Today reported.

“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,” Bates’ lawyer, Kimberly Weber, said, according to USA Today.

The voice-activated device answers questions, plays music, and performs other demands. It begins recording and transmitting information to its Alexa voice-recognition program after a "wake word" is spoken.

The case, which has a discovery hearing set for March, is the latest to pit demands for technology-based evidence against American privacy rights, and may be the first to attempt to tap a smart speaker.

It's unclear what information the device may hold and unlikely that it includes conclusive evidence of a murder, The Washington Post reported. But the issue has broader implications for the use of technology in legal investigations.

Last year, the FBI requested Apple provide access to data from an iPhone belonging to a suspect in a mass shooting in San Bernardino. Apple refused, and tech companies, including Amazon, filed a legal brief supporting Apple's position, the Post noted.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has expressed concerns about such technology, CNN reported, saying in a 2015 letter to the U.S. Justice Department, "Americans do not expect that the devices in their homes will persistently record everything they say. By introducing 'always on' voice recording into ordinary consumer products such as computers, televisions and toys, companies are listening to consumers in their most private spaces.

"It is unreasonable to expect consumers to monitor their every word in front of their home electronics. It is also genuinely creepy."

Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith disagrees with Amazon's refusal to provide the information.

"They'll say it's for privacy reasons, but I don't believe they have a legal leg to stand on," he said, according to CNN. "I don't think they're a bad company or anything, but I don't think they want to release it because they want to sell more of them. … There's not a rational or legal reason that we shouldn't be able to search that device."

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Whether an Amazon Echo device may serve as a witness to a murder is in question after police in Arkansas asked Amazon for recordings from the device as part of an investigation.
amazon, echo, murder, witness
Thursday, 29 Dec 2016 06:11 AM
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