03.01.17

Amazon refuses to release Echo data in murder investigation

Control4 and Amazon Alexa

Mobile, laptops, social media and even video games have been previously used in investigations of crime, but what about the data from a voice control device? This is the question currently being disputed on both sides of a case investigating the murder of a man in Arkansas, US.

For some, the main concern of owning a voice control device such as Amazon Echo is the ‘always listening’ nature of the technology, and the privacy of cloud-based data has therefore always been something reinforced by manufacturers. Yet a November 2015 murder investigation has left many questioning if (and if so, in what circumstances) security overrides consumer interests and data should be accessible by prosecutors or government.

The case has led to a legal tug-of-war between the case’s prosecutor and the global retail giant, who has so far refused to the release data twice, calling the demand ‘overbroad.’ Amazon originally entered the murder case as someone present on the night of the murder allegedly reported hearing music streaming through an Echo device that evening.

The prosecutor claims Amazon are refusing to comply with a search warrant, to which the company have publically commented; "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us." It added: "Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

Attorney Nathan Smith argues possible snippets of information recorded by the Amazon Echo could help provide clues on how the victim in question (a former police officer) came to be found dead in the hot tub of the investigation’s prime suspect.

Another smart device, the suspects’ water heater, also could be key to the outcome of the investigation, as it suggests an excessive amount of water being used in the early-morning, in what prosecutors are arguing was an attempt to cover up a crime.

This is not the first time a technology-based evidence has hit the headlines in high profile court cases, with Apple refusing to help the FBI unlock a device following the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

Experts including Joel Reidenberg, academic director for Fordham University's Centre for Law and Information Policy, argues the privacy of voice-activated devices is no different than other social media and internet search histories. He claimed Amazon are ‘likely to lose’ if the motion goes up the chain of appellate courts in a recent interview with CNN, and if voice-activated devices continue to be enter legal battles companies like Amazon may be forced to rethink the architecture of their devices.

The case will go on trial in March 2017.