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Amazon Protects Customer Data In Murder Trial, Arguing That Alexa Speech Falls Under First Amendment Rights

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Amazon is keen on protecting customer data and it's still refusing to turn over Echo recordings requested in a murder investigation, going for a First Amendment argument.

For those unfamiliar with the whole matter, Amazon received an order last year to turn over audio from an Echo device, along with account and subscriber information, to help solve a murder investigation.

More specifically, Arkansas police have been investigating James Andrew Bates, accused of murdering friend Victor Collins in November 2015, and requested Amazon to hand over the audio recordings for Bates' Echo speaker just in case Alexa overheard the murder.

Amazon Alexa Speech Protected By First Amendment

Amazon agreed to hand over subscriber information and purchase history, but drew a line when it came to Echo recordings. Two months later, Amazon is still keeping a firm stance in the matter and it has now filed a motion to quash the search warrant requesting Echo audio recordings.

The company argues that the speech of Alexa, the digital assistant at the heart of Amazon Echo, is protected by the First Amendment. Consequently, Amazon wants the warrant thrown out since First Amendment rights would apply in the case of Bates' interactions with Alexa on his Amazon Echo.

Amazon argues that not only are the users' voice commands protected as free speech, but the Alexa Voice Service as well. Both requests and responses to Alexa included details that would disclose a lot about the user and their interests, Amazon argues, therefore the government should protect the speech.

Moreover, since Alexa's responses somewhat reflect both the users' and Amazon's speech, Alexa should also have protection, Amazon's lawyers argue.

"At the heart of that First Amendment protection is the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery," explained the legal team. "The responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon's First Amendment-protected speech."

Alexa's Responses Are A Constitutionally Protected Opinion

Amazon's lawyers went further to argue that Alexa's selection of what details to include in a response is a "constitutionally protected opinion," much like the rankings of search results on Google. Consequently, Alexa should qualify for "full constitutional protection."

At the same time, Amazon also argues that the government has to prove that it really needs the data it's requesting. Otherwise, people would think twice about seeking and getting information and content in their own homes

This is not the first time when law enforcement tries to access data from a device only to meet resistance from the device makers. Technology companies are always trying to protect their users' data and privacy and government data requests often make things difficult, but it's good to see that major players such as Amazon are willing to stand up for their customers and argue in court to moot requests that overreach.

It remains to be seen whether Amazon's argument to protect Alexa and the Amazon Echo under First Amendment rights will be successful, but it's nonetheless a compelling approach that could set important precedents.

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