Since introducing the original Amazon Echo in November 2014, Amazon has continued to refresh and expand its lineup of hands-free, voice-enabled speakers. In April, the company introduced the Echo Dot, a smaller version of the Echo, and in September returned with an updated version of the Dot, simultaneously cutting its price almost in half to $50 (or £50).
Police in Bentonville, Arkansas are turning to Amazon to help prosecute a suspected murderer. The case, which was first spotted by The Information and goes back to 2015, shines a light on how smart home devices might start playing a larger role in future criminal investigations.
James Andrew Bates was charged with first-degree murder after a man named Victor Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub in November 2015. Bates owned a few connected devices, including a Nest thermostat, a Honeywell alarm system, and an Amazon Echo. During the course of their investigation, police issued a warrant to Amazon requesting data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed records, and other text records from Bates’ Echo. The police also sought more personal information on Bates, including his subscriber information, and his purchase and billing history.
Amazon hasn’t disclosed the data Bates’ Echo transmitted to its servers, although it did provide police with Bates’ account information and purchase history. However, the police seized his Echo and independently extracted data from it. The court documents do not specify what that data was exactly. A search warrant states that police believe they could have extracted audio recordings, transcribed records, text records, and “other data.” The Echo does have some local storage. Amazon sent us this statement about the case: “Amazon 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.”
Now, we likely won’t have a better clue about what police were able to ascertain from this data until the case reaches a courtroom, if ever. The important takeaway is that connected devices are becoming essential to police investigations. For its part, Amazon says the Echo only begins recording when its wake word, like “Alexa,” is spoken. That said, the device is always listening for its trigger word.
Users can even play back their commands from the Alexa app as further proof that Amazon knows everything you’ve told your Echo to do. For the privacy-conscious, the Echo has a physical mute button that turns the microphone off, so maybe turn that on if you’re considering murder. But really, don’t murder people.