Police Demand Access To Amazon Echo Data In Murder Case

Police investigating a murder in the US state of Arkansas have gained access to some audio data that may have been recorded on an Amazon Echo electronic personal assistant.

The Amazon Echo speakers utilise the Alexa virtual assistant that allows customers to use voice commands to instruct Alexa to control IoT devices, create shopping lists, or even play music.

But Amazon is attempting to resist police attempts to access the data stored on an Echo device at the centre of a murder investigation, in the latest development that sees a tech firm refusing a law enforcement data demand for privacy reasons.

Murder Probe

The case is centred in Bentonville, Arkansas, and according to the information website, concerns the death of Victor Collins, who was found on 22 November 2015, in a hot tub at the home of James Bates.

Police apparently found signs of a struggle, including spots of blood and broken bottles, as well as an Amazon Echo on the home’s kitchen counter.

The voice-activated device has seven microphones, and is equipped with sensors to hear users from any direction up to about 20 feet.

James Bates was subsequently charged with murder in February this year, and as part of the investigation, police in Bentonville issued a warrant for Amazon to hand over any audio or records from an Echo belonging to Bates.

Bates is facing a trial for first-degree murder of Victor Collins next year.

But Amazon is not playing ball, and it reportedly declined to give police any of the information that the Echo logged on its servers. That said, it did hand over Bates’ account details and purchases. The police have apparently been able to pull some data off of the speaker, but it’s unclear what information they were able to access.

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” said the firm in a statement to Engadget. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

It should be remembered that the Echo speaker only captures audio and streams it to the cloud when it hears the wake word “Alexa.” Once it hears that activation command, a ring on the top of the speaker turns blue and audio is then recorded. These audio clips are stored in the cloud until a customer deletes them either individually or all at once. The microphones on an Echo device can also be manually turned off at any time.

Privacy Concerns

The case of course will raise concerns among privacy campaigners as the uptake of Internet of Things devices around the home, which able to record private information, continues to grow.

And the Arkansas case is also similar to that of the recent case of Apple vs the Feds. That case saw the iPad maker resist attempts by the FBI to unlock an iPhone used by a man in a shooting in San Bernardino, California.

The Feds eventually paid so called ‘grey hat’ hackers to crack the iPhone, after Apple refused to co-operate to unlock the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook.

Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik had murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December 2015, in a deadly terrorist attack that shocked America.

Quiz: Are you clued up about Amazon’s cloud computing platform?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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