Amazon Refuses To Comply With Police Request For Amazon Echo Recordings In Murder Case

from the always-on-microphones dept

Well, you knew this was coming sooner or later. Reports came out this week (via the paywalled site The Information) that law enforcement in Bentonville, Arkansas issued a warrant to Amazon asking for any recordings that Amazon had from its Echo device that may have been relevant to a murder case they’re working on. At issue is the Amazon Echo device owned by James Andrew Bates, who is accused of murdering Victor Collins a year ago. The key bit of information here is that Amazon refused to hand over any recordings that it might have logged, but did hand over more general information about Bates’ account and purchases.

Of course, just the request for possible audio information has lots of people paying attention. This kind of thing has been predicted for ages — now that pretty much everyone has “always on” microphones all around them in the form of either internet-of-things connected devices like the Echo, or merely your mobile phone with Apple’s Siri or Google Now. The police in this case appear to be searching for any info that could be supplied by the devices that spy on us:

Police say Bates had several other smart home devices, including a water meter. That piece of tech shows that 140 gallons of water were used between 1AM and 3AM the night Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub. Investigators allege the water was used to wash away evidence of what happened off of the patio. The examination of the water meter and the request for stored Echo information raises a bigger question about privacy. At a time when we have any number of devices tracking and automating our habits at home, should that information be used against us in criminal cases?

Bates’ attorney argues that it shouldn’t. “You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us,” defense attorney Kimberly Weber said. Of course, there’s also the question of how reliable information is from smart home devices. Accuracy can be an issue for any number of IoT gadgets. However, an audio recording would seemingly be a solid piece of evidence, if released.

NY Mag has a good analysis of the situation, noting that while the Echo is “always on” it only keeps information after a specific request.

Amazon?s Echo (and its main competitor, the Google Home) works by passively recording everything you say. None of this information is actually sent to Amazon. Think of it more like taking notes in class ? as if you?re listening but not writing anything down until your professor actually says something important. But when the Echo hears ?Alexa? (or whatever your activation phrase is), it begins to actively record. That snippet of speech is then sent to Amazon?s cloud servers, where your recorded message is run through a speech-recognition neural network and a response is sent back to you, whether that?s playing a song on Spotify or giving you the weather forecast.

Amazon keeps all of the recordings of you asking Alexa to play WNYC or of you setting a timer for 20 minutes. You can jump into the Alexa companion app and hear all of your requests again if you want to see just how bored you sound when talking to your home voice robot. Sure, it?s slightly creepy ? but Amazon also tracks pretty much every move you make while you?re online shopping as well.

That article also notes that Amazon has no officially stated policy about how long it keeps recordings, but there’s an anecdotal suggestion that it’s deleted after six months.

Of course, some people will immediately use this as a reason why no one should ever have these kinds of devices — but that ignores that they can actually be quite useful as well. This is the trade off that we continually go through with modern technology these days. The ability to make use of certain tools and services also involves revealing certain information about you — and then you have two potential problems: first, what does the company giving you the service do with that info and, second, what would third parties (e.g., law enforcement or hackers) like to do with that info if they could get a hold of it.

This is the kind of thing that everyone — especially in the tech industry — should be discussing, but seems afraid to even bring it up, for fear of scaring people off of these new devices and services. This is ridiculously short-sighted. The industry should be much more upfront about this. It should be much clearer about what information is collected, what is done with it, how long it’s kept and who has access to it. Even more important is that it should give the end user full control over that data. That is, let users log in and see what information is collected and how it’s been accessed. Similarly, allow the user to delete that info — perhaps while letting them know it might impact the quality of services. By being more transparent, and giving more control to the end users, then people can actually get the benefits of some of these services, without having to worry about the problems (or at least making decisions to minimize the risk).

Amazon may have chosen not to give the info in this case (if it even had any info to give) — and that’s good. But these kinds of requests are going to keep coming. And ignoring the issue isn’t going to help anyone.

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Comments on “Amazon Refuses To Comply With Police Request For Amazon Echo Recordings In Murder Case”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

"Here's all the relevant files." "There's nothing there." "Exactly."

While I can understand why Amazon wouldn’t go along with the police’s fishing expedition I almost wish they had humored the police, just for a chance to prank them.

Given I rather doubt that most murderous would-be-criminals start their night with ‘Alexa, I’m about to murder someone, what’s a good way to keep the mess down?’, the number of recordings relevant to the investigation were likely between zero to none, such that they could have complied with the demand and handed over exactly zero files in the process, perhaps with a note explaining the point above regarding murderers and talking out loud.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Here's all the relevant files." "There's nothing there." "Exactly."

You say Amazon should have humored them, but the underlying article does say that Amazon was responding to a warrant, not an informal request. I think it unlikely that Amazon would "decline" to turn over information it possessed without legally objecting in court. They know how deep their pockets are, and how much a warrant-issuing judge could hurt them for contempt.

DDwt says:

Re: Re: Corrupt Arkansas Judge


yes, the core problem here is a corrupt judge (government legal bureaucrat) who issued a blatantly unconstitutional warrant.

That judge needs to be fired & disbarred as a lawyer — as an example to the hordes of other government judges with similar outlook towards federal & state constitutional guarantees of basic citizen rights.

Amazon lawyers can easily void this specific illegal warrant
with a formal appeal procedure — but that corrupt judge will suffer no personal consequences… unless Amazon (with its deep pockets) pursues a formal ethics complaint against that judge with the Arkansas state judiciary.

Judges & cops usually suffer no personal consequences for their “official” crimes.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Corrupt Arkansas Judge

blatantly unconstitutional warrant.

But is it? Wouldn’t these just be business records under the third-party doctrine?

The third-party doctrine is a United States legal theory that holds that people who voluntarily give information to third parties—such as banks, phone companies, internet service providers (ISPs), and e-mail servers—have "no reasonable expectation of privacy." A lack of privacy protection allows the United States government to obtain information from third parties without a legal warrant and without otherwise complying with the Fourth Amendment prohibition against search and seizure without probable cause and a judicial search warrant.

Unless there is specific case law that excludes that information from 3rd-party, how is it unconstitutional? I think it should be unconstitutional, but that doesn’t mean it is. Which is maybe what Amazon is trying to establish by refusing to hand over that information and, hopefully, prepared to defend its position in court if necessary.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: "Here's all the relevant files." "There's nothing there." "Exactly."

I kind of agree with your point, but I think the police expected something else. With an “always on microphone” in the room, they probably wanted to hear a recording of argument or other incriminating evidence, not a request for a way out of a murder conviction.
They might simply not realize that the “always on listening” from the device doesn’t mean “always on recording” as the article explains.

So, although I think as you do that the would be no relevant recordings (except if someone called “Alexa” during the possible fight), I can understand their expectations.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: "Here's all the relevant files." "There's nothing there." "Exactly."

The problem even with this is it would be trivially simple for Amazon to turn on “always recording” via a simple soft/firmware update.

So if the authorities wish to eavesdrop on someone, then they might be able to use existing powers (e.g. NSLs, or in UK RIP) to force the company to enable that on targeted devices.

And that isn’t even considering hacking (from blackhats to NSA/CIA/FBI) to enable that functionality, bypassing the manufacturers entirely.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Queries I hope Alexa forgot

Alexa, you’re an expert on constant surveillance. I’ve just help commit banking fraud that could collapse the economy and will cost the U.S. taxpayers trillions of dollars. This while the SEC required me and everyone I communicate with to hand over our e-mail, cellphone text and financial records to enforce insider trading and other financial rules.

Am I in trouble?

Alexa: No.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Queries I hope Alexa forgot

Alexa: I think I heard a gunshot. Similar customers involved in shootings have been interested in quicklime, chainsaws, and burner phones. I see that you have Amazon Prime; Amazon currently has a sale on an environmentally friendly Homelite electric chainsaw — would you be interested if we could get it to you with free shipping by tomorrow noon?

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Queries I hope Alexa forgot

"Alexa, order two gallons of bleach from Amazon Fresh, for delivery today."

Maybe you should of asked Alexa how to forensically remove blood-stains. Although I don’t know if it’d give the right information, would be interesting to find out 😉

You’d be better off ordering 1 gallon of chlorine-based bleach and 1 gallon of oxygen-based bleach and using 1 after the other (not at the same time – don’t mix them together) on the blood-stains.

Chlorine-based bleach destroys DNA in blood samples, so they can’t get a DNA match from the bloodstains. However luminol will still detect the presence of blood (or more specifically, the red blood cells based on iron).

So to defeat the luminol test, you then apply the oxygen-based bleach, which will neutralize the iron in the red blood cells that luminol uses to detect the blood. However, it won’t destroy the DNA in the blood stain.

Therefore you need to use both to defeat the luminol and destroy the DNA.

Or so I’ve heard…

Geno0wl (profile) says:

What Amazon does

what does the company giving you the service do with that info

uhhh it is pretty obvious what Amazon/Google does with your stored queries. It mostly uses them to improve its services.

An example would be looking at what you and other people asking for the most. If you are constantly asking about setting timers and the weather they know they need to make sure to improve those services. If you are asking about changing the lighting in your house they want to improve that service. ect ect.

Secondly They can also use the queries to see what people are looking for and buying(just like Amazon does with your normal shopping habits…) and advertise to you. I mean Amazon already looks at your shopping history and advertises to you based off that and they keep that shit forever, so why is this drastically different?

Lastly they can use the queries to improve their voice recognition software. They can’t necessarily directly improve how it hears you, but they can improve the thesaurus the devices use to try and how people talk. So when you say "Order puppy chow for my Collie" it will know you mean "dog food for my dog".

Sure maybe there is other insidious reason they are reading our queries(for the lulz!) but those are the three actual main ones.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What Amazon does

Oh, it’s not just the liberals that aren’t allowed to have bias.

I live in a highly conservative area, and see plenty of conservatives that exhibit exactly the same behavior.

People are people. We’re inherently biased. It’s unfortunate.

Attack the argument, not the person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 What Amazon does

“People are people. We’re inherently biased. It’s unfortunate.”

Likely the wisest thing said on TD in a long long time.

But I would challenge your assertion that your highly conservative area is running around “advancing political correctness”. In general the connies… while every bit as biased as the libbies, are fighting the idea of PC and not spewing anti-bias rhetoric like a hypocrite.

I am not saying this is impossible and I am even sure it happens in isolated incidents, just improbably considering the landscape where it is typically the libbies not the connies. Does anyone here lack the ability to understand context or is this the butt hurt races where the one with the biggest faux butt hurt wins?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 What Amazon does

on re-reading that original post, what I intended to say was:

“Oh, it’s not just the liberals that don’t allow people to have bias.” TD’s lack of an edit function strikes again.

Ask a liberal, Fox news sucks because it’s biased. Ask a conservative, CNN sucks because it’s biased.

I see both camps pull out the “bias” cards on a regular basis. Both are bad at admitting that they pull out the bias card, but quick to point it out on the other side.

It sucks, because it makes having an adult conversation nearly impossible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 What Amazon does

I have found there are two common reasons for the problem with having adult conversations.

#1. People are NOT interested in learning, only parroting their own ideals.

These are the people that constantly tell others that they are not offering up solutions despite having provided several. Like Obama really loves to say… “If you Republicans don’t like what I am offering, then offer something up yourselves!” To be fair Bamy is hardly the first PolyTick to trot this out, but since he used it plenty it comes to mind fairly easily.

#2. People need a dictionary. They really just need to learn about the words they erroneously use.

I cannot tell you how many times folks on just this forum alone do not know what the words they are using even mean. I am not talking about syntax or spelling errors, they just plum think things like capitalism means something it does not mean and start blaming it for this and that just because they feel like it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 What Amazon does

Perhaps you should do something useful with your time?
Instead of trolling with words that a 2 year old could come up with, that you think are terribly clever, perhaps you could share your infinite wisdom with the “Libbies” and “Connies” to make a world a better place!

But, I’m sure, being useful is too difficult for you.

I.T. Guy says:

Re: Re: Re: What Amazon does

Doesn’t make him right either. This is an opinion based argument. Geno0 may have no issue that his private thoughts and habits are collected and disseminated. To him the benefits of the devices outweigh the privacy implications.

So if privacy is “no big deal” to someone, then these devices are great.

My OPINION is in the back of his head he knows and tries to justify it with:
“It mostly uses them to improve its services.”
“They can also use the queries to see what people are looking for and buying”
“Lastly they can use the queries to improve their voice recognition software”
and just to throw off any naysayers he throws in this gem:
“Sure maybe there is other insidious reason they are reading our queries(for the lulz!)”

As I read it… it seemed like he was trying to convince himself more than trying to convince others.

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What Amazon does

“As I read it… it seemed like he was trying to convince himself more than trying to convince others.”

As I read it he was just laying out a set of facts that most technologically apt people should be well aware of my now; that these companies collect data to use in ways that improve their service, because better service attracts and retains customers, which in turn makes them more money. Why he need to convince himself of something that’s fairly well understood? Yes there are absolutely privacy trade-offs, and making these trade-offs more transparent and controllable is something a lot of these companies could improve on, which is a main point of the article.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

“Of course, some people will immediately use this as a reason why no one should ever have these kinds of devices — but that ignores that they can actually be quite useful as well.”

This is a fight I constantly find myself having. I am a geek and I love technology. The idea of having a Star Trek like computer I can talk to is of course very high on my list of wanted tech. The issue is that I also see the constant abuse of these technologies. It makes me sick to see these shiny toys just within reach only to see

“Tucked under the light ring is an array of seven microphones that use beam-forming technology and enhanced noise cancellation. With far-field voice recognition, Echo can hear you ask a question from any direction—even while playing music.”

Then my mind processes exactly how that can be abused and I have to walk away.

It is so frustrating to look around at the world and think of where we could be and the things we could do with technology only to realize we are constantly being held back because a selection of assholes can’t resist abusing the power.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

… what?

First of all, who exactly is going around ‘making excuses for corporate mass surveillance’, and why is it you think that they are the threat meant in the comment?

Because I don’t know about you, but the first that comes to mind is not a private company looking to boost profits(which can be invasive to be sure, but generally not a threat), but government agencies engaged in a little modern-day witch hunting, and/or criminals looking for valuable and/or incriminating data.

I.T. Guy says:

“but that ignores that they can actually be quite useful as well.”

Not at all. The trade off of security vs privacy will never be worth it. They are by design, devices that collect your info and send it to big data to be harvested, analyzed, and sold. Thats the business model. Even if these devices were free, I would never own one. It’s bad enough all the info you have to give up in daily life. Last thing I need is something that is 24/7 in my home.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Re:

First, wrong debate. This is not “privacy vs security”, but “privacy vs convenience”. Next…

I get it you don’t have a smartphone.
Scratch that.
I get it you don’t have a mobile phone.
Nasty little trackers that report your position at all times and broadcast all your conversations…

Probably no credit card either.
Wait, rather not have a bank account at all. Some people can just go and check your transaction history.

Seriously, there is a balance to reach. Where the balance lies exactly is up to each of us, but there is no such thing as absolute privacy. Unless you choose to leave as a hermit somewhere far off.

Oh wait, you just commented on the internet.
Maybe I should just forget your posturing.

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: Semi secure at best

“For the semi secure types there’s a button that can be used instead of allowing the mic to be on 24/7 i.e. push-to-talk.”

Someone needs to open up an Alexa and determine if that button is software-driven, or is hard-wired into the electrical path to the microphones.

I’m guessing it’s software-controlled, in which case, it’s going to be fairly easy to circumvent with an updated/custom OS.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Re: Re: Semi secure at best

It’s a toggle… a momentary contact… so whether or not the function is software-addressable from afar, it’s definitely not disconnecting the wires from all seven microphones.

Idea for a new Amazon aftermarket item: a soundproof box to store your Echo or Dot in. Not only can they still sell you the device, but can sell you the accessory too!

Anonymous Howard II says:

Re: Semi secure at best

For the semi secure types there’s a button that can be used instead of allowing the mic to be on 24/7 i.e. push-to-talk.

Ah, but is it a ‘hard’ switch which shorts out the microphones, or a soft key which simply replaces the "Alexa…" command? If the latter, it presumably could be over-ridden by a hacker.

TheResidentSkeptic says:

Keyword Advertising: FAIL

Naturally, the keyword-dependent advertising is now showing ads on this article for the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot. Need to work on that a bit – detect “positive” article -show ad – detect “negative” article – DON’T show the ad!

Like Machin Shin, I am a total geek and love our tech toys… even used to run QVoice on my early PC’s. Had a nest, but removed it due to the bricking stories. When mama wants heat, we damn well better have heat!

The balancing act just isn’t coming together yet. Abuse is rampant – security is non-existent – and I agree that we are decades behind where we could and should be.

Until respect for the Constitution returns to our various TLA’s, I don’t see a resolution coming. And that is just plain sad.

sigalrm (profile) says:

There are 3 things (at least), not 2 to worry about.

“…and then you have two potential problems: first, what does the company giving you the service do with that info and, second, what would third parties (e.g., law enforcement or hackers) like to do with that info if they could get a hold of it. “

Actually, you have at least 3 potential problems: the two above, plus: How long will it be before Amazon is presented with – or is compelled to produce – an “Alexa, Law-Enforcement” version of their software for targeted installation on these devices, along with the new, standard issue Rule-41 based warrant + gag order?

The code to build an Alexa on a Raspberry Pi is already on Github, it’s not a stretch to tweak it from “watch for keyword and upload next 30 seconds of audio” to “upload all audio.”

Amazon didn’t say “come back with a warrant” out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t want US Government to kill what could end up being their flagship product in its infancy.

stine (profile) says:

did they overlook this?

> You can jump into the Alexa companion app and hear all of your requests again if you want to see just how bored you sound when talking to your home voice robot.

Surely, if they have his devices, they can search his Echo’s history themselves.

On a separate note do you think that Amazon refused the request because it turns out they’ve got recordings of everything from the factory QA testing forward for every device?

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: did they overlook this?

“On a separate note do you think that Amazon refused the request because it turns out they’ve got recordings of everything from the factory QA testing forward for every device?”

IMHO, probably not.

For that to be the case, Amazon would have to upload the data at some point, and the first thing privacy wonks do with a device like this is throw a up a sniffer and watch all of the traffic these things emanate.

If they were seeing anything like a constant data stream or unreasonably large periodic bulk flows from an Alexa device to the mother ship, they’d have screamed about it.

Given what the device does, the outbound data flows will follow fairly predictable patterns if it’s truly behaving as advertised.

crade (profile) says:

“first, what does the company giving you the service do with that info and, second”

IMHO, this is *almost* the issue, the actual issue has to do more with disclosure and accountability.

It’s not what the company does with your info that is important, but how it gets permission to do those things with your info, how it must notify you about what it is doing with your data and how it is held accountable if it does those things with your data without your permission and/or without notifying you.

Rekrul says:

Government: We want everyone to start carrying a tracking device that can instantly locate their position and which can be used as a listening device. Plus it will record information about where they go and what they do online.

The People: This is outrageous! We will never accept this level of fascism!

Tech companies: This is called a "smart phone" it can be used by the government as a tracking device, can be used as a listening device and it will track where you go and what you do online. Oh, it also plays games!

The People: Games? GIMME!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Funny AND Insightful all at once.

The People will constantly do things that work against them because they see a convenience or a benefit. Games on phones is one example… the other good example are the people offering up their biometrics to get places faster. Like the airport or sporting events. If you are willing to give away your privacy and freedoms you don’t have to wait in line.

Pure Security Theater designed to condition Americans to give up liberty. And we love it all the while we run our chicken shit mouths about it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Alternatively...

Tech: Here’s a device that takes the place of the phone you have in your house, except you can take it with you and use it anywhere. Also you can listen to music on it, read, play games, and do other stuff on it.

The People: That’s awesome, gimme!

(Approximately five seconds later)

Government: So, we heard about this ‘smart phone’ thing you made, and it looks like it can also be used to track someone anywhere they are in real time, record and listen in to their conversations, and many other incredibly invasive things.

Tech: It… can be used for that, yes, but that’s not why we made it.

Government: Yeah, about that… guess what you’re going to be doing shortly, whether you want to or not unless you want things to get really unpleasant for you?

John David Galt (profile) says:

Is this a goof in the article, or a real issue?

Both the source quoted above, and the article on The Blaze where I first saw this story, say that the police issued a warrant. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Warrants are supposed to be issued by judges, and only if the judge finds that the police have shown him probable cause.

Is this an error in the two articles, or is there something unconstitutional going on here?

For what it’s worth, I would want Amazon to comply if the warrant actually did come from a judge and is not so broad or vague as to be unconstitutional in one of those ways.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Is this a goof in the article, or a real issue?

^This. Due process is not an impediment to justice and should never be seen in that light. That said, perhaps what actually happened is that the police obtained the warrant from the judge per the letter of the law, then proffered it to Amazon. It’s possible that the warrant was over-broad and that Amazon’s legal department considered it unconstitutional but until we see the paperwork we can only speculate.

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