As the devices around us continue to get smarter, there is an increasingly slippery slope regarding an outsider’s access to its owner’s private information. With no specific precedent established, each instance of a request for information expectedly stirs the proverbial pot. In December, the police department in Bentonville, Arkansas decided to dip into this ongoing debate by requesting access to an Amazon Echo device it believes harbors information pertaining to a 2015 murder. Though the police have already obtained some data from the device, it appears as though it’s searching for even more access to an otherwise privately contained batch of information.
Just over a year ago, a man by the name of James Andrew Bates drew a charge of first-degree murder after police found the deceased body of Victor Collins in Bates’ hot tub. While investigating the who, what, why, when, and how of the incident, the Bentonville Police Department noticed a slew of connected devices installed throughout Bates’ home — including a Honeywell alarm system and, the device in question, an Amazon Echo.
Requested by the police was access to any audio recordings, text records, purchase history, or transcribed documents pertaining to Bates and any of his relative Amazon information. Amazon has not fulfilled the police department’s solicitation for the Echo’s audio recordings, though it has already supplied Bates’ prior purchases and account information. The police department says it already pulled data from the Echo, though it’s not entirely known how much usable audio or text was not only extracted but capable of being utilized in court.
So what could the police department have feasibly pulled from the Echo device? It’s known that Amazon’s voice-activated devices remain consistently awake while waiting for a specific wake word but whether or not it’s always actively listening or recording creates a bit of a gray area. According to an in-depth Wired article about Google Home and Amazon Echo’s ability to record voice, it’s pointed out that although the devices each search for a wake word, anything said before its designated prompt isn’t stored or transmitted. If this is true, then it’s unlikely the Bentonville police department holds much in the way of usable data — unless Bates uttered the wake word around the time of Collins’ death.
Although it’s unknown the kind of damning information this Echo may possess, the police did acknowledge that Bates’ water meter displayed a dramatic spike in usage during the night in question. Granted, a hot tub remains a central part of Collins’ mysterious death but the water meter shows that roughly 140 gallons of water were used over a brief two-hour time period from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. To the investigators, this assessment of the water meter — and to a larger extent, the request for the Echo data — is them merely doing their job. As far as Bates’ defense attorney is concerned, it’s a violation of privacy.
“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,” said Kimberly Weber, Bates’ defense attorney, according to a report by The Information.
With the trial of James Andrew Bates scheduled for 2017, it’s expected the two sides — and eventually Amazon itself — will continue to debate the merit and virtue associated with openly sharing the data of a connected device such as Amazon’s Echo. However, it won’t be until this trial concludes for there to exist any semblance of a theory as to whether or not the actual data proves critical in the pursuit of justice — or if it serves as nothing more than an establishment of an unpredictable precedent.