Murder on Echo?

Can Amazon’s networked speaker Echo help solve a murder? The police in the U.S. state of Arkansas hope so and now want to get at Amazon’s data.

Amazon’s voice-activated speaker Echo is a remarkable device. Though by no means fully developed, the virtual assistant it contains can already play music, retrieve information, organize appointments, tell bad jokes and wish its users good night in an almost frighteningly human manner. Now she could also help solve a murder, the police from Bentonville, Arkansas, hope.

As the technology site The Information reported first on Tuesday, police served a warrant on Amazon to turn over various types of information saved on its server from a particular Echo. Its owner, a certain James A. Bates, was charged with murder. He is alleged to have killed a colleague in his [Bates’] house last November. The Echo may have recorded something that night which could prove his guilt.

It is the first known case in which an Echo device has been eyed by law enforcement authorities. It might well not be the last time, given that the Internet of Things and the networked private residence of the future collect data that prompt requests.

Amazon Doesn’t Want To Simply Hand Over the Data

Echo is always listening generally to what is being said in the room with its integrated microphone. If users say the word “Alexa,” they activate the assistant with the same name. Only then are the requests transferred to the servers at Amazon. In the corresponding app, the requests as well as the saved recordings can be viewed afterward, and if desired, manually erased from Amazon’s servers. According to their search warrant, the police expect that the information not yet erased contains evidence in the current case.

What exactly this might look like is not clear. The investigators apparently hope that the device was activated in some form before the crime. It is conceivable that something might be heard in the background of a request that possibly indicates a motive, perhaps an argument between the two men. The search warrant additionally states that it is possible for the Echo to transmit without prior activation.

A Smart Water Meter Measured Conspicuously High Consumption

A spokesperson for the firm said that this assertion is false. Echo is indeed always listening; the input is only sent upon activation. Moreover, Amazon has not yet met all of the demands of the police. It did deliver the customer profile and purchase history of the accused, as ordered. But Amazon says it will deliver further personal data only after a “valid and binding legal demand.”

Even if Amazon complied with police demands, it appears improbable that the investigators would find something relevant for the case in the Echo data. The case is interesting all the same because it illustrates how the IoT, networked personal residence and other gadgets could increasingly shift the focus of prosecutors in the future.

Networked Devices Prompt Requests

“My client has a right to privacy in his own four walls, and I have a problem with law enforcement authorities using technology that is supposed to improve our lives against him,” the lawyer for the accused said in conversation with The Information.*

In fact, the police did not stop at the Echo speaker, but rather also seized further networked devices in the Bates household: a thermostat manufactured by Nest, an alarm system and a smart water meter that registered unusually high water usage on the night of the murder. The investigators’ report says that this is connected to the traces of blood that were apparently washed from the veranda at the scene of the crime.

This development might not surprise privacy groups. They have been warning for years that IoT devices record a lot of personal data, which is frequently transmitted insecurely via the internet and eventually prompts requests from authorities. By no means is it only the manufacturers and service providers who are interested in user data, but third parties, too.

Memories of the Case of Apple vs. the FBI

The so-called fitness trackers have already registered this development. In a case from Florida, the police analyzed the data of a Fitbit armband to show that a victim was not raped as alleged, but rather that she was sleeping at the time of the alleged crime. In this case, the woman voluntarily surrendered her login data to authorities, but it is conceivable that investigators in other cases could come knocking on the doors of manufacturers with corresponding court orders.

Investigators are stuck in a dilemma. On the one hand, the recordings of an Amazon Echo, the data of a fitness tracker or a smart garage door opener could possibly help solve crimes or detect fraud. Insurance companies, for example, hope that in the future, IoT devices will better be able to prevent insurance fraud. On the other hand, many manufacturers also promote protection of customer data and personal privacy, and a firm like Amazon cannot afford to release Echo data entirely without resistance. Ultimately, that would not exactly instill confidence in its own products.

The current case in Arkansas is reminiscent of the disagreement between Apple and the FBI this past spring. Apple refused to unlock the iPhone of a shooter. After a debate about the introduction of possible back doors for decryption, the FBI ultimately found another way: it bought backdoor access on the black market and unlocked the device without Apple’s help. That is exactly what the investigators from Arkansas are now apparently trying to do. “Our agency now has the ability to utilize data extraction methods that negate the need for passcodes,” according to CNET, quoting from the warrant. Investigators may succeed in accessing the Echo data via the confiscated iPhone of the suspect. Whether or not they will find anything useful will be made clear in early 2017 when the Bates trial begins.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quote could not be independently verified.

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