28.02.17

Amazon fights murder investigation warrant on behalf of First Amendment

GE Amazon Alexa

You may remember hearing about Amazon being called upon by a prosecutor in Arkansas, US to release Echo data in the investigation into a local man’s murder at the close of the last year, in one of the more unusual stories surrounding voice-controlled devices to have come out last year. Well, Amazon are still refusing – and are doing anything in its power (including citing the First Amendment) to fight the request.

The murder of an ex-policeman in Arkansas sparked headlines around the world, as Amazon were dragged into a legal tug-of-war over the release of audio data that may have been recorded on the night of the death.

After complying at first, and providing subscriber information and purchase details, Amazon later refused a formal police warrant to hand over the data.

The retailer were called upon to "produce any audio recordings and transcripts that were created as a result of interactions with an Amazon Echo device owned by the defendant” during a 48-period when the alleged homicide took place, in a warrant back in November 2015. The prosecution team believes any audio recordings made surrounding triggers, or any overnight activity (when the defendant claims to be asleep), could provide potentially critical insight into events surrounding the murder.

The company publically released statement ("Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us") in response to the “overbroad ” (or “otherwise inappropriate”) broaching the issue, but prosecutors in the investigation are not satisfied.

An extensive motion filed by Amazon this month argues that the responses of Alexa, and data gathered by the Echo device are protected under the First Amendment. In particular, stating that releasing the data would be against the device’s owner’s (the defendant in question) rights to free speech and "right to receive information and ideas." The company says that unless the State of Arkansas can show there is a “compelling need” for the release of the information, the search warrant should be thrown out – using a case from back in 2003 where Google successfully argued that its search results should be protected.

The motion states: "Amazon does not seek to obstruct any lawful investigation, but rather seeks to protect the privacy rights of its customers when the government is seeking their data from Amazon."

This certainly won’t be last voice devices and their data become entangled with the legal world, as the finalities of “who owns what” are ironed out in the next few years, and the result will most certainly set a precedent (something Amazon are all too aware of) within the industry. Yet it could be argued when names like Apple and Amazon publically deny such requests on behalf the rights of defendants charged with murder, the lines between what’s right technologically and morally possibly start to blur.

Source: Motion filed by Amazon

UPDATE: Amazon has since handed over the Echo data in the investigation.