US Judge Asks Amazon For Echo Data In Murder Case

Amazon is once again at the centre of a privacy row after a judge in the US asked the firm to hand over audio recordings from an Amazon Echo.

The Echo speaker in question was located in a house in New Hampshire, where the bodies of two women with multiple stab wounds were found under the porch of the house.

The potential use of smart speakers for law enforcement has also been explored in the UK. In January this year Lancashire Police investigated whether smart speakers could be used to collect reports from the public and to disseminate information on crime.

Murder case

The Lancashire police idea was to use AI assistants to allow people to file crime reports and witness statements from their own home, thereby reducing the strain on 999 call centres and on officers.

But on the other side of the pond, the Amazon Echo is once again at the centre of a murder investigation.

A man has been arrested for the murder of the two women, but has pleaded not guilty and is due to stand trial next year.

The BBC reported that the US judge has also requested that Amazon hand over any additional data, including if the Echo speaker was paired with other devices at the time the women were attacked in January 2017.

Amazon however has reportedly said it would not hand over any data about the device without a legally-binding instruction.

Amazon apparently told the Associated Press it would not hand over anything “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us”.

Previous case

This is not the first time that Amazon has been asked to hand over Echo data to law enforcement.

In December 2016 Amazon resisted attempts by the police investigating a murder in Bentonville, in the US state of Arkansas.

The police wanted access to some audio data that may have been recorded on an Amazon Echo in a murder investigation of Victor Collins, who was found on 22 November 2015, in a hot tub at the home of Andrew Bates.

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

In March 2017 the impasse was resolved when the defendant, Andrew Bates, consented to allow the data to be handed over, which Amazon did.

It should be remembered that the Echo smart speaker, 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 can mishear words and sounds and mistakenly sends recordings to the cloud. This is the information that police typically want to access.

The voice-activated devices tend to have seven microphones, and are equipped with sensors to hear users from any direction up to about 20 feet.

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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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