“Your Honor, the prosecution calls Amazon Alexa to the stand.”

“Your Honor, the prosecution calls Amazon Alexa to the stand.”

I’ve had several people alert me to this story (thanks, everybody!) and I’ve seen it covered pretty extensively in the mainstream news.

That honestly surprised me a bit…certainly, it’s an important story, but it didn’t seem very surprising to me.

This

CNN story by Eliott C. McLaughlin and Keith Allen

gives you a good sense of the basics of the case and its implications.

The Arkansas police suspect murder in the case of a man found drowned in the home of an acquaintance. The Attorney General wants to see if an

Amazon Echo (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

which was in the home might have relevance to the case.

Almost all of the reporting I have seen has focused on the idea of voice recordings being stored in the cloud. The implication has been that the Echo might have recorded the actual crime.

This ties into the suspicion that many people have about the device.

While we had a relative staying with us during the holidays, we had our Echo and our Echo Dot (at AmazonSmile*)’s microphones turned off. We spent the week staring into the Red Eye of Alexa (the devices show a red glowing ring at the top when deafened). Fortunately, we also have an Amazon Tap (at AmazonSmile*), which doesn’t listen unless you tap (hence the name) a microphone button. That way, we could still easily use our home automation.

Of course, my relative realizes that’s it’s hypothetically possible these devices could be lying about when they listen to you, and that other devices, like a SmartPhone, could be listening to you without telling you at all.

From what we’ve been told, though, the Echo and the Dot are always listening. However, they supposedly don’t send anything to the Cloud until they hear the “wake word” (by default, that’s Alexa, but you can change it to “Amazon” or “Echo”, on the original device). When they are listening, it’s obvious: a blue light circles the top, and is brightest in the direction from which the device thinks the sound is coming.

I think it’s very, very unlikely that there was any useful voice recording captured. It was the accused’s house, and the victim (let’s say “deceased” instead…the defense suggests it was an accident) is acknowledged to have been there. You might be able to figure out time of death better, I suppose, if the deceased asked questions or gave commands. Without the voice recording, you can’t tell who was addressing the device. That may be possible in the future…it would be great if Alexa could recognize who was speaking, and even perhaps use that as a security device (which could be overridden by manually logging into it on the app the way we can now). Right now, if someone walked down a street and kept yelling, “Alexa, open the garage door”, they might gain entrance to a home uninvited.

I used to work in a phone room, and one of our best salespeople had a weird experience. I was a “verifier”…I called back the next day to see if the person who ordered the books really wanted them. If they didn’t, I canceled the order…making me the good guy. 🙂

One time, I called the number and the person who answered (after I identified who I was and why I was calling), asked what time the order was placed. I gave the time, and the person said (approximately): “This is the Sheriff. We believe the house was robbed at that time. I’ll need to speak to your salesperson.” This salesperson was quite honest, as far as I was concerned (the best ones usually are), so I believed the data I had on the card was accurate. The Sheriff talked to the salesperson who told me later that the owners of the house were in Europe on vacation. Apparently, the thief answered the phone…and listened to a presentation and ordered the books! The salesperson had to describe the voice to law enforcement.

That sort of thing wouldn’t be useful here, since, as I say, the main people’s presence in the house at the time isn’t disputed.

It’s possible that there might have been questions asked which would be useful, even if they were just text. “Alexa, how do I get blood off of cement?” might be an interesting query, for example. Those Q&As are visible…even in the app on the phone. If they seized a phone and had a warrant for it, they could tell what was asked.

When we had some people working in our yard, I told them they could yell into the house to get music from Alexa. One of them (jokingly) asked a question about a coworker that would have involved…um…some questionable behavior. They probably didn’t realize that I could see that question in the app later. 🙂

No, for me, what makes this story interesting isn’t that Alexa might have recorded something.

It’s that Amazon hasn’t honored the warrant.

Amazon is famously protective of its customers’ privacy, going to court in the past to fight groups wanting to get it (I remember a case with North Carolina from 2010, for instance).

In this case, there is a warrant, but apparently, Amazon feels it is “overbroad”. Here’s a short excerpt from the article”

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” it said in a statement. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

This could certainly go to court, and might work its way through several levels with appeals.

Amazon might eventually lose, meaning that they would have to turn over Alexa data far more easily (they did, apparently, turn over account information).

That doesn’t bother me much…I really don’t think Alexa has much private information which would affect me. I find it far creepier that my Galaxy S7 keeps a timeline of all the places I’ve visited. My phone often asks me if I want to add photos from some place I’ve been…even if I haven’t asked directions on how to get there. I could turn that feature off…but even though it’s creepy, I have used it…for mileage for work, for one thing. That’s almost always a tradeoff in technology: privacy/security versus utility. People commonly give up security for making something easier to use…there are many people who don’t put a password on their Wi-Fi networks, for example, because they don’t like having to enter one.

The same is true with Alexa. I wouldn’t want to have to say a passcode every time I wanted to turn on the lights!

Oh, and it’s important to note: the prosecution doesn’t want to search the device, they want Amazon’s records which are stored at Amazon…two totally different things.

So, Alexa isn’t going to court…but I can imagine what might happen if she did! I don’t need to imagine it: I’ll ask my Alexa a few questions.

Prosecutor: “Alexa, where were you last night?”

Alexa: “I’m sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.”

Prosecutor: “Alexa, did you hear anything which might be relevant to the case at hand?”

Alexa: “Bah-boom” (Alexa’s sound for rejecting a question).

Prosecutor: “Alexa, has John Doe ever asked you any questions?”

Alexa: “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”

Again, those are the actual responses I just got when I asked those questions.

Certainly, there may be devices in the future which record what we say and do all the time (some things like that are available now, but are not common). I have a dashcam in my car…it’s constantly recording. However, unless I push a button, it will record over video…and pretty quickly (I drive enough that it probably doesn’t go a day or two before it is recording over video). Now, if my dashcam was wirelessly transmitting the data (maybe through my phone) to a gigantic central storage, that could potentially be incriminating…or exculpatory, in my case, since I’m one of those people who (irritatingly to some) tends to follow the law pretty closely. My coworkers get tired sometimes of me waiting for a walk signal to turn green when there are no cars in the area. 🙂

Bottom line: as technology becomes more useful by knowing us better, it is also going to be able to give that information to investigators…and that’s something to consider. For more on this issue, I recommend the 1999 book The Transparent Society by science fiction author David Brin (the book is not science fiction).

Review: The Transparent Society

Even now being almost two decades old, it’s consideration of privacy versus freedom is still relevant today.

What do you think? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

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2 Responses to ““Your Honor, the prosecution calls Amazon Alexa to the stand.””

  1. Phink Says:

    In a small Arkansas town on a humid night a sound is heard. It must be an intruder.

    Me: Alexa, possible home invasion
    Alexa: Sorry, I don’t have the answer to that question

    Under that scenario Alexa and my phone’s app would have that statement listed. Too bad there is no time stamp but other clues with it might narrow it down and Amazon could probably give them the time if they would.

    The big downside is the intruder hears Alexa talking and that is something I would not want. I am reaching for the rifle by my bed and since we have less that 1,200 square feet it won’t take long to find where I am but I don’t want to give clues either. In a very bad situation where they have a gun on me and I have nothing I could see me saying “Alexa, white male, 30 years old, blonde hair.” I think I could get that out before he shot me. On my app it showed exactly what I told her.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      I assume that Amazon does have a timestamp on Alexa requests…that it just doesn’t show in the app.

      It’s an interesting idea…I suppose that might work.

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