Can an Amazon Echo be a murder witness?
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
In a rather dramatic turn of events, law enforcement officers in Bentonville, Arkansas, are seeking a digital witness for a homicide investigation.
During their search and investigation of a murder scene, police noticed an Amazon Echo in the kitchen of the premises. They think the device may have recorded some ambient noise or background chatter, and they are hoping the device recordings could lead them to more clues about the crime.
When no human witness is available, should evidence from devices be admissible in court?
The case has raised more questions about data privacy in the era of always-connected electronics. As a recent CNET report pointed out: "You have the right to remain silent — but your smart devices might not."
Amazon, which saw quadrupled sales during the 2016 holiday season for both Echo and Echo Dot, may be in a quandary. Served with a warrant, they have provided the account information but have not released any recordings to the police. Amazon servers store all the voice recordings, even if the user deletes the personal data at home, to improve its voice assistant services.
Amazon cited legal repercussions for not releasing the data, but the police could use the account information and tap into the speaker's hardware for audio files, timestamp and other relevant data. Smartphones — even password-protected ones — are subject to legal investigations, so it shouldn't come too much as a surprise that other smart devices are targets as well.
Newspaper reports have stated that officers are taking advantage of technology to uncover as much evidence as they can. This includes everything at hand from the alarm system, thermostat and other smart home devices, like WeMo devices for lighting and exterior wireless weather monitoring.
From the investigation angle, targeting smart devices is a brilliant idea. By monitoring the smart meter for hourly electricity and water usage, Bentonville police found excessive water usage during the alleged murder time. Since the murder also involves drowning, this is relevant information for them.
The police may not get as much help from Echo, since it needs to be activated to record usage — but once it is, it may store relevant information. Clearly, there is the use of digital evidence like this. It remains to be seen how much of a breach they create regarding privacy.
In the age of the Internet of Things, it is no longer strange to be surrounded by multiple connected devices. Many of these have the ability to record and track our every movement, and we don't think much of them. Just like we don't think about our texts and social media posts.
The reality, however, is that nothing is private anymore. Everything we say and text is recorded in the cloud or some server somewhere and can be easily retrieved.
There have been rising privacy concerns over digital devices, especially when it comes to threats from hackers and criminal activity. The Amazon Echo has added to those worries, along with demands for clearer legal standards for law enforcement access to data.
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