Spark

Can your smart home speaker give evidence in court?

"Alexa, call my lawyer!"
Smart tech takes the stand: In an age of voice-activated technology, how do we balance rules of evidence and privacy rights? (Michelle Parise)

Voice-activated technologies make it easier to speak your commands rather than tap them out with your fingers. Just think of the popularity of Siri, Cortana, or Google Now on smart phones.

Increasingly, smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home bring smart home services under one hub. But could voice-activated technology play a role in police investigations?

Can audio from your smart speaker be used in court?
Voice-activated technologies like Amazon Echo are raising questions about how audio might be used in court (Amazon.com)

Back in December, police in Arkansas issued a search warrant to Amazon. They wanted all audio and records associated with an Amazon Echo belonging to its owner, who was accused of murder.

Police were looking for any incriminating audio that may have been recorded on the night of the alleged murder.

At last update, Amazon had turned over some account info but not the audio, telling tech news site Engadget that it "objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

That case is still ongoing, and it's hard to say what evidence might have been recorded by accident, especially since the Echo is only supposed to actively record after being given a "wake up" word.

Robert J. Currie (Dalhousie University)

But it got us thinking about the broader issues here. In an age of listening tech, how do you balance helping solve crimes, privacy rights, and rules of evidence?

Robert J. Currie is a law professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, and Director of the Law and Technology Institute there. He says the case raises thorny questions for this kind of evidence here in Canada.

"From an investigation point of view, the main issue for the individual is...do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in recorded data like this," Robert says. "How should it be protected by the laws, and have our laws caught up?"

Beyond individual privacy, though, there are other questions about its admissibility. Evidence needs to be of the sort that the court should hear. That means it needs to be reliable and publicly justifiable, Robert argues.

"We're dealing with a new kind of technology here...The software is not always very good. And we're not talking necessarily about Amazon or Google here, we're talking about all kinds of tech companies who manufacture [products] that may record audio or video or data about you," Robert argues.

"The software may be defective, it is amenable to hacking, it may be amenable to misuse." Robert says courts in Canada are still wrestling with these sorts of issues.

"You can easily imagine somebody who knows that a monitoring and recording device...is lurking in the background, might very well start to plant statements, to plant evidence." - Robert J. Currie

When it comes to how this sort of audio might be used in court, the issues can start to sound like the plot of a thriller.

"Our courts and our laws have always been alive to the idea that people will sometimes anticipate that they'll be going to court and they will try to manufacture evidence that will work in their favour, often by making statements," Rob says.

"So you can easily imagine somebody who knows that a monitoring and recording device...is lurking in the background might, very well start to plant statements, to plant evidence."

Some of the same issues arise in civil cases. "You can absolutely see this kind of data being used in a family matter like a divorce proceeding or other kinds of civil proceedings," he says.

"We worry about people manufacturing evidence. We worry about people invading each other's privacy in gathering this evidence when they are not constrained by the constitution the way the police are. So, husbands hacking into their wives computers. Wives hacking their husbands' smart devices".

Listen to the full interview with Robert here:

A look at the future of evidence in a connected world, where our devices can listen to us. 12:40

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