'Alexa' murder case dispels privacy concerns

Convershaken Staff
January 3, 2017

'Smart home' devices such as Nest thermostats and Hue lightbulbs harness the power of the internet to let users adjust temperature, lighting and other 'settings' of their home on their smartphones, wherever they are. However, privacy advocates have warned that the shift towards connected homes exposes people to digital snooping. An ongoing murder case involving an Amazon Echo suggests it's possible to strike a balance between privacy and utility.

Amazon Echo, an interactive speaker powered by the e-commerce giant's 'Alexa' AI system, allows users to stream music, hear their local weather forecast, set timers and much more. The device sits silently until someone says the set wake-up word - either 'Alexa' or 'Amazon'. It then activates, relays the subsequent command to Amazon's servers, and voices the response it gets back.

Local police in Bentonville, Arkansas, have slapped Amazon with a warrant for the voice recordings of Echo owner James Andrew Bates, whom they've accused of murdering a friend in his hot tub in November 2015. Presumably, the police hope the device picked up some relevant or incriminatory dialogue. However, Echo doesn't record or transmit any communications until it hears its name, at which point it remotely logs the subsequent command (until it judges it to be over) and the half-second of noise before it activated. Therefore, it's unlikely to have recorded anything meaningful during the night of the murder, unless it was accidentally awoken.

The news story should help to dispel the myth that the Echo records everything said around it and sends the data straight to Amazon. Privacy advocates may also be reassured by Amazon's discretion so far: it has criticised the police demand as overly broad and refused to provide the audio files without a "valid and legal demand properly served".

However, the case suggests that smart-home devices will play a growing role in legal cases: Mr Bates' smart water meter showed 140 gallons of water were used around the time of the alleged killing, which police suggest could reflect his use of a garden hose to wash away evidence from his porch.