Amazon Hands Over Contested Echo Data In Murder Trial

Amazon has agreed to hand over data recorded by an Echo “smart speaker” for use in a murder investigation after the defendant gave his consent.

Bentonville, Arkansas resident James Andrew Bates, 31, is accused of the murder of his friend Victor Collins, 47, a former Georgia police officer, who was found dead in Bates’ hot tub in November 2015 after Bates, Collins and another friend spent the evening watching a football game.

‘Smart home’ data

Prosecutors have used other data held by Bates’ service providers in the case, for instance saying water usage records obtained from the water utility was consistent with someone using a garden hose to wash blood off the patio where the hot tub was located.

They attempted to force Amazon to hand over any recordings the company might hold from Bates’ Echo device to shed further light on the events of the night in question.

The Echo, which is powered by Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence, continuously listens to ambient sounds, but only sends recordings to be stored on Amazon’s servers following a “wake word” such as “Echo”, “Amazon” or “Alexa”.

But the device often mishears words and sounds and mistakenly sends recordings to the cloud, and it’s these possible mistaken recordings prosecutors hoped to recover.

Bates says he was asleep at the time of the murder, while one witness said the Echo was playing music during the evening.

Amazon twice declined to provide the data, arguing in February that users requests and the company’s responses are protected by US’ First Amendment free-speech rights. As a result, law-enforcement agencies must meet a high burden of proof to obtain the materials, Amazon had argued.

The company did, however, turn over Bates’ account information and purchase history.

But Bates has now agreed to allow law agents to access the information, prompting Amazon to hand it over on Friday. The legal documents disclosing the decision were made public on Monday night.

Privacy questions

The move means the constitutional question remains unanswered.

A hearing on Wednesday has been set to address whether any pertinent information was gathered from the speaker.

The case is one of several in which data held on or recorded by smart devices has been demanded by law enforcement officials, raising questions over the potentially far-reaching data-protection implications such devices pose.

Apple last year made headlines when it argued against an FBI demand that it help unlock a dead shooting suspect’s iPhone, saying the Department of Justice had overreached its authority.

In that case, too, the legal question was left unanswered after the FBI paid £1m for a hacking tool to access the device.

A Harvard study last year found that the rapid spread of easily hackable Internet-connected devices such as thermostats and toys was making individuals increasingly easy to spy on.

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Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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