The Arkansas investigators who asked Amazon.com for data from an Echo device are unlikely to find much. But the request raises the prospect of authorities harnessing digital assistants in order to prosecute suspects in novel and controversial ways.
The investigators in an Arkansas slaying who asked Amazon.com for data gathered by an Echo device are unlikely to find much there. But the request raises the prospect of authorities harnessing digital assistants in order to prosecute suspects in novel and controversial ways, a University of Washington cyberlaw expert says.
Police in Bentonville, Ark., obtained a search warrant to get data that may have been recorded by an Echo speaker in the home of James Bates, who is accused of killing a visitor, Victor Collins, late last year.
The Echo is a popular device that connects its owners to Alexa, the cloud-based, voice-activated digital assistant that’s at the forefront of Amazon’s artificial-intelligence efforts. Police suspect that audio recorded by the device and held in Amazon’s data centers could hold clues to what happened the night Collins was killed.
Ryan Calo, a professor at the UW School of Law who specializes in privacy, robotics and cyberlaw issues, says the Bentonville Police Department’s fishing expedition is “unlikely to yield anything.” The reason is that the Echo sends information up to Amazon’s cloud only when it hears a wake word, usually “Alexa” or “Echo.”
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Even though the device can turn on accidentally by mistaking another sound for its wake word, it would be a huge coincidence that it managed to have recorded something pertinent to the alleged crime. “That’s so unlikely, it seems to me a big waste of time,” Calo says.
What’s more interesting, in Calo’s eyes, is what police could do in other cases. For example, they might get a warrant to activate an Echo or some other digital assistant remotely — turning it into what’s essentially a bugging device.
“Then you’d have a microphone in someone’s house,” Calo said.
Authorities could also search a person’s history of interactions with the device to check alibis out, for example. Or goad a fugitive’s Waze or Google Maps itinerary to lead them to a checkpoint where they can be arrested.
It’s unclear whether it’s technically possible to turn the Echo or other devices into a remote listening device under someone else’s control. But the possibility raises legalistic and technical issues not dissimilar to last year’s dispute between Apple and federal investigators who wanted the Cupertino, Calif., tech titan to help them break in to the iPhone of one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., massacre.
“As these things become more interactive and interpersonal, you can imagine some pretty tricky ways of getting information out of people,” Calo said.
Calo said tech firms should strongly resist those requests from the authorities “because they really should be putting their customer first.”
Amazon didn’t speak specifically about the Bentonville case after a recent request for comment, but it 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.”
Nathan Smith, a Benton County, Ark., prosecutor, said in an emailed statement that after the slaying of Collins that allegedly took place in Bates’ home, “it is incumbent on law-enforcement officers to examine (the Echo’s) data to determine if it has any relevance to the crime.”
Smith acknowledged the reactions of privacy advocates to the search warrant served on Amazon, but “this case is really about seeking justice for the victim, who was a husband and a father.”
“Since law-enforcement officers followed the constitutionally mandated procedures to obtain a lawful search warrant in this case, I am hopeful that Amazon will agree to fully comply with it,” Smith said.