As It Happens

'A glimpse into the future': Arkansas police want access to Amazon Echo in murder case

As It Happens guest host Helen Mann speaks with reporter Tom Dotan about a murder case in Arkansas. Police have issued a warrant for access to information stored by an Amazon Echo.
Smart devices such as the Amazon Echo, which responds to voice commands as a hands-free digital assistant, are intended to bring more convenience to people's lives. Privacy lawyers warn consumers should study terms of service to find out whether web-enabled products are defaulted to share their personal data. (YouTube)

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On Nov. 22, 2015, Arkansas' Victor Collins was found dead in a hot tub. There were spots of blood and broken bottles at the scene. 

Police are investigating the death as a homicide and they think they might have a witness. Her name is Alexa. 

Alexa is not a person. Alexa is the virtual assistant inside Amazon's Echo speaker — the so-called smart speaker that sits on a table in your home. Like Siri on an iPhone, Alexa responds to spoken questions and commands.

An Amazon Echo was inside the home the night of that homicide in Arkansas. Amazon has so far resisted a police warrant for access to whatever it might have overheard.

Tom Dotan is an Amazon Echo owner and a technology reporter with The Information. He was first to write about this story. Here's part of his conversation with As it Happens guest host Helen Mann.

HELEN MANN: Mr. Dotan, let's start with a little background on this case. What is known about what actually happened that night before the man's body was found in a hot tub?

Suspect in Bentonville hot tub death James Bates. (Benton County Jail)

TOM DOTAN: According to the police report, James Bates — a man in Bentonville, Ark. — had invited a couple of coworkers, they all worked at Walmart, over to his place to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks' football game. This was Saturday afternoon. They all got pretty drunk over the course of the afternoon and the evening. At around midnight or so, according to the police report, James says that he went to bed with two people still there —  one of them being Victor Collins. And then in the morning, he woke up and found Victor Collins dead in his hot tub. He proceeds to call the police who come to investigate. Through the process of investigating this case …  [police] decide to charge [James Bates] with first-degree murder. According the examiner's report, Victor Collins was found strangled.

HM: Presumably, they have collected "conventional" evidence from the scene. Why do police now want to get their hands on this Amazon Echo speaker?

"If you either intentionally, or accidently, trigger this device, it will record your audio.- Tom Dotan, technology reporter

TD: For a number of reasons. I mean, the way these devices work is … you say the wake word and upon saying the wake word it begins to record what you're saying and send it to Amazon servers. All that audio data is saved. So, if you either intentionally, or accidently, trigger this device, it will record your audio. So, if over the course of the night, they receive any information that could be pertinent to this case — an argument they had or anything that could place him at a certain time and certain place — all of that could theoretically be pertinent to the case they're bringing against him. 

The Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled virtual assistant, is seen at its product launch for Britain and Germany in London, Britain, September 14, 2016. (REUTER/Peter Hobson - RTSNQKL)

HM: Do we know if there are instances in which the device goes on automatically and maybe misinterprets the words "Alexa" or "Amazon" and just starts up?

TD: Oh, yeah. That happens quite frequently — as any Amazon Echo owner will tell you. It listens for these wake words which are either Alexa or Amazon. But, there are a lot of words that kind of sound like that. So, even something like the word election or reflection … So, in those instances, you are getting an interaction with the device. It is recording that data. All of that is a part of your interaction history with the device.

Tom Dotan is a reporter with the technology news website The Information. (Lori Makabe)

HM: The material is stored in the Cloud. Can you delete it?

TD: Yes, you can. So, there's a companion app that goes along with the device. It's quite fascinating to look through because you can see the actual transcriptions and audio clips of your interactions with it going back quite aways. So, you can manually delete it … I do say it's not clear to me, whether or not —  even if you delete it —  it is gone in perpetuity. Amazon says that it is. But, it's entirely impossible … Well, I don't want to be alarmist here. Maybe, I shouldn't go down that road. But, it's entirely possible that your audio could live on in the Cloud.

HM: What are the broader implications, in your mind, going forward?   

I think what we're seeing in this case is kind of a glimpse into the future of forensic investigations as it relates to smart devices.- Tom Dotan, technology reporter

TD: Well, I just think that there's not enough precedent set right now as to how this data could be used, what are the legal ramifications of having an always-on device in your house, and what is the obligation on the part of Amazon —  or any other technology company — to turn that data over. So, I think what we're seeing in this case is kind of a glimpse into the future of forensic investigations as it relates to smart devices.

HM: [Is the public] aware of the potential when it comes to invasion of privacy?

TD: The way it always goes with privacy, people always tend to be freaked out at first and raise a big stink about stuff. Then, ultimately, they become accepting of it ... There is quite a lack of knowledge on the public's part.

[At this point, Dolan's own Amazon Echo spontaneously starts making noises in the background]

... Excuse me. Hilariously enough, my Amazon Echo is picking up sound. [Laughing] ... The funniest thing of all, as I've been doing these interviews, I have this Echo in my apartment and every time I've said "Alexa" she's perked up and interrupted my conversation. I tried to mute her for this one but I had an alarm go off. 

Here is Amazon's statement:

"Amazon 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."

This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Tom Dotan. You can also read his piece in The Information here

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