UNUSUAL WITNESS

Police want to know what an alleged murderer’s Amazon Echo heard, on the night of the crime

In a reminder that our smart devices can also be used against us, police from Bentonville, Arkansas, are querying whether an Amazon Echo device heard what happened at a murder scene in 2015. They have asked Amazon to hand over the recording data of the voice-activated smart home machine to help investigate the crime.

A man named Victor Collins was found dead in a hot tub at James Bates’ home in Bentonville one November morning in 2015, after spending the night with two other friends at the Bates home. Police said Collins died of strangulation, with drowning as a secondary cause, USA Today reports. Police charged Bates with murder on Nov. 22, 2015. As officers investigated the crime scene, they realized that several smart home devices, including a smart water meter and an Amazon Echo, might hold evidence about what exactly transpired.

The Bentonville police department presented Amazon with a search warrant for all audio recording, transcript, or data obtained through the Echo device between Nov. 21 and Nov. 22, 2015. The company did not provide the data, but gave police Bates’ Amazon account details and purchase records instead.

The Bentonville Police has not returned requests for comment.

In a statement to Engadget, the company 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.”

When switched on, Amazon Echo is always listening for the wake word, “Alexa,” but does not start recording until it hears the word. It then sends whatever is said to the company’s servers, with encryption. Echo also does not keep over 60 seconds of audio in its internal storage, according to USA Today. The device microphone can also be turned off, and recordings can be deleted manually from the account.

The case poses some of the same issues posed when the FBI went to court against Apple, ordering it to unlock an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino, California, shooters. Smart home devices that record our personal lives can also be used by governments to provide evidence of crimes we may commit.

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