Murder Trial Sparks Controversy After Judge Requests Data From Home’s Amazon Alexa

Wouldn’t Agatha Christie novels be so much simpler if Poirot could simply ask, “Alexa, who did it?”

In our modern age, digital devices capable of tracking our movements and listening to our conversations are more prevalent than ever before. A “prime” example is the Amazon Echo, a gadget containing the company’s AI assistant, Alexa, which is always listening for its owners to wake it up and ask a question. There happened to be an Echo sitting in the kitchen of a home in Farmington, New Hampshire, where prosecutors in a double homicide trial allege a murder took place.

Earlier this month, a judge ordered that Amazon release the data stored on that particular Echo to the court. Amazon has not yet said whether or not it plans on releasing the information they have, but the case could have large-scale implications for our personal technology’s role in future law enforcement. Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is the author of The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement.

Ferguson commented to Day 6:

“I think this is the beginning of the ‘internet of evidence’ where lots of pieces of smart devices are going to show up in criminal prosecutions…It’s one of many examples of the fact that we are now all living with little smart spies in our houses.”

The ethical and societal implications of private data from smart devices have long been a topic of debate among the law enforcement community. In 2015, another Amazon Echo’s data was requested by prosecutors in the murder of an Arkansas man.

At first, according to Ferguson, Amazon was unwilling to comply:

“Amazon filed a very long pleading saying they had essentially a First Amendment commercial free speech right to this data.” 

The mega-company later relented and gave the attornies what information they did have. The resulting evidence didn’t end up being sufficient to indict a suspect, however. While an Echo is always “listening” for its wake word, Amazon claims the company doesn’t start recording until it’s been alerted. Most of the time, according to the company, no audio recordings are available to be listened to.

In this newest court case, Ferguson believes the prosecutors are hoping for a lucky break:

“This is just the prosecutors and police hoping that maybe there was a, ‘Hey Alexa, how do we get rid of a dead body?’ kind of question…The missing predicate for this case is any sort of assumption that the device was ever recording. There’s no allegation that the Alexa was listening or was used.”

Ferguson believes that calls for our smart devices to “testify” in court will increase, but that law enforcement agencies and defense attornies must be diligent in calling for probable cause before violating the privacy of a phone or Echo, just as they would for a private home:

Ferguson explained:

“There may be a whole host of smart devices that may, or may not, have anything to do with the crime that I think we’re going to see police and prosecutors trying to get just as a matter of courseI think what will happen is we’re going to start seeing more smart devices essentially called to court to be witnesses against their owners.”

Twitter is both anxious and excited about our technological futures:

Though it’s unclear what role technology will play in future courts, unplugging your Echo before committing any crimes is probably the safest bet. 

H/T – CBC, Day 6