Elizabeth, NJ- The Amazon Echo is a voice-activated virtual assistant aimed at helping people with their daily tasks, but law enforcement in Benton, Arkansas thinks data collected on one man’s Echo could solve a murder case. In addition to garnering national attention, the case has ignited the debate about privacy and rules for obtaining a warrant as Internet-connected devices become more prevalent in our everyday lives.
The Amazon Echo is a voice-activated digital assistant that is always on and listening for verbal cues from a user to become active. Once a “wake word” is spoken, the virtual assistant will respond to the user’s requests and begin recording their interactions. Those interactions are stored on a server owned by the device manufacturer so that they can improve performance. But law enforcement in Benton thinks data from the Echo can help their investigation by shedding some light on what happened on the night a man was killed at a friend’s home.
On November 22, 2014, Benton police were called to a man’s home after an overnight guest was found deceased in a hot tub on the premises. Upon examination of the deceased, police noticed signs of a struggle and concluded the man was the victim of a homicide. Police arrested the homeowner and charged him with first-degree murder.
During a search of the home, police located and seized several electronic devices including an Amazon Echo. The police obtained some information from these devices but would like to access any data captured by the accused’s Echo including audio recordings, transcribed records or other communications in hopes they will obtain clues about the events of that night, NPR reports.
Law enforcement issued two warrants to Amazon seeking data from the accused’s Echo, but the on-line retailer denied their request. In a statement, Amazon said, “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.”
Some of the evidence gathered in the case includes information from a smart water meter in the accused’s home. Some critics say that there is a danger of small bits of data obtained from Internet-connected devices will be cobbled together to build a case that relies primarily on circumstantial evidence.
There are important distinctions between getting a warrant for a suspect’s smartphone or computer and seeking data from a remote server owned by a third party which is tied to an electronic device. Data collected on a smartphone or computer is stored on the device and is subject to a warrant. But data collected by the Echo is stored on the server owned by Amazon with the presumption that the information obtained by the device is private.
This case is interesting because it raises the issue of privacy in the internet age and highlights the fact that there are no legal standards for obtaining information from smart devices. Tech experts believe cases like this one will continue to come up, so legal standards need to be established.
The rules for gathering evidence and obtaining warrants are not clear in every case. So, if you are accused of a crime, you will benefit from legal counsel. As a criminal defense lawyer in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I stay informed about cases like this one so that I can give my clients informed representation. If you are facing criminal charges, call my office Newark office at 973-453-2009 and set up a consultation.