As We Leave More Digital Tracks, Amazon Echo Factors In Murder Investigation

Dec 28, 2016
Originally published on December 29, 2016 10:33 am

Amazon's personal assistant device called Echo was one of the most popular gifts this Christmas. But this week, the device grabbed headlines for another reason: Police in Arkansas are trying to use its data in a murder investigation.

What we know from court documents is that in November 2015, a man in Arkansas had some friends over at his house to watch a football game and in the morning, one of the friends was found dead in a hot tub in the backyard. Police later charged the man who lived in the house, James Bates, with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

As the police were investigating the crime, they found a number of digital devices in the suspect's house, including an Amazon Echo device that was in the kitchen. They have since seized the device and have apparently gotten some information from it, but what they want to check is what — if anything — the device may have recorded around the time of the murder.

Here's how the device works: Echo is always listening for the wake, or trigger, word, which is usually "Alexa." But experts say the storage capacity on the actual device is pretty minimal, so only a tiny amount is written and then overwritten as the device listens for the wake word.

When the wake word is said — and the blue light ring lights up — all the spoken queries get recorded and transmitted to Amazon servers. "To be clear, Echo is only streaming audio to the cloud when the blue light is on," says Amazon spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall.

But a number of Echo users have reported a creepy experience of the device turning on and starting to talk without being prompted by the wake word "Alexa" — perhaps mis-hearing or misinterpreting conversations in the room.

So in the Arkansas murder case, which was first reported by tech industry news site The Information, the police may be counting on such an accidental recording or something more. They served a search warrant to Amazon for data covering two days around the time of the murder.

Amazon has satisfied a portion of the request. According to court documents, the company has provided "account holder information for James Bates and purchase history."

However, Amazon declined to share information from its servers. The company has not commented on the specific case, but issued a 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."

All this may remind you of the Apple-FBI standoff over access to a locked iPhone in the San Bernardino shooting investigation. This isn't exactly the same kind of case, but it's another example of law enforcement turning to a tech company for access to personal data.

Privacy advocates have long predicted a wave of these kinds of cases — as we connect more and more things to the Internet and swarm our homes with digital devices, they will become involved in more crime investigations.

Interestingly, even in the Arkansas case, investigators are also using information from a smart water meter, alleging that an increase in water use in the middle of the night suggests a possible cleanup around the crime scene.

And that's going to be a more common occurrence — when the data, otherwise seemingly innocuous, could be used to draw inferences or guesses about habits and activities, says Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

"It's not just one device, it's putting together a whole bunch of different devices to make a case that is, some would argue possibly circumstantial, some would argue is incredibly compelling. And so the question is going to be, how much data is going to be enough to make a foolproof case?" she says.

This has prompted calls for new policies and reviews of legal standards for how tech companies should comply with law enforcement and other government requests.

Particularly, privacy experts say new focus will fall on how much and how long private data is kept by the companies that create so-called Internet-of-things devices as they become targets of not just investigators, but also hackers and spy agencies.

"We live in the world where we really haven't settled the law or the standard of care for companies that provide in-home devices like that," O'Connor says. "The standards of care — as companies have more and more really specific information about what goes on inside the home — has got to be higher and higher."

And the law, guidelines and standards are far from settled. Besides, there's also a big difference between data ending up in the hands of the company you know you're doing business with and ending up in the hands of the government, she says. Plus — at least this case is actually following proper court procedure.

"A much larger concern I think for the country is ... how much is the government asking for this behind closed doors" — including for investigations into people who haven't been charged with any crimes.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Amazon's personal assistant device called Echo was one of the most popular gifts this Christmas. It's a voice-activated gadget that can play music, catch up on the news, search the web for information, even control lights or security cameras if you have a smart home. But this week, Amazon's device grabbed headlines for a very different reason. Police in Arkansas are trying to use its data in a murder investigation. NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh is here to tell us about it.

Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi. And we should start with a disclaimer that if you are listening to NPR in the vicinity of Amazon Echo, it may turn on now as we refer to the voice assistant that powers it called Alexa.

MARTIN: You've been warned. OK. So first, Alina, walk us through what happened in this Arkansas case.

SELYUKH: What we know from court documents is that a man in Arkansas had some friends over at his house to watch a football game, and this was more than a year ago. And then in the morning, one of the friends was found dead in a hot tub in the backyard. And the police later charged the man who lived in the house with murder, but he has pleaded not guilty.

MARTIN: All right, so how does the Amazon Echo factor into this?

SELYUKH: As the police were investigating the crime, they found a number of digital devices in the suspect's house - an alarm system, a smart water meter and an Amazon Echo device. It was in the kitchen. And what they want to check is what, if anything, the device may have recorded on the day of the murder.

MARTIN: Because we should just point out when the device is activated for a couple of seconds, it will record the ambient sound in an environment.

SELYUKH: That's right. So Echo is always listening for the wake word or trigger word which is - usually is Alexa. But the storage capacity on the actual device is pretty minimal, so it's kind of constantly writing and rewriting tiny bits of audio. But then when you do say the trigger word, the little blue light turns on and anything you say gets on to Amazon servers where the recordings get stored. And that's what the police want, they've served a search warrant to Amazon for the audio or transcripts they may have on their servers.

MARTIN: All right, so what is Amazon saying?

SELYUKH: Amazon has complied with part of the search warrant. They've turned over information about the suspect's account and purchases, but they're fighting the request for recordings from its servers. And the company says it objects to, quote, "overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands."

MARTIN: But clearly the police believe or at least suspect there's something relevant in these recordings?

SELYUKH: And that's tricky. It's not clear what, if anything, is there. They're asking for two days worth of recordings. And, you know, some Alexa users have experienced that creepy situation when the device turns on and starts talking without being triggered. So the police maybe hope that the Echo in this case may have recorded something at least by accident.

MARTIN: So this all brings to mind that case where the FBI was trying to get the information from the iPhone after the San Bernardino shootings, and they were trying to get Apple to release that to them. Is it similar?

SELYUKH: It is another example of the law enforcement turning to a tech company for access to personal data. And the defense side in the Arkansas case is really stressing the suspect's right to privacy. He was in his own home. And, you know, the privacy experts have long predicted a wave of these kinds of cases. As we connect more things to the internet in our houses, these devices will become involved in more crime investigations. And interestingly, even in this case, investigators are also using information from a smart water meter to argue that lots of water was being used on the night to clean up presumably the crime scene.

MARTIN: NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh. Thank you so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.