Amazon has finally decided to give Alexa recordings to the police to aid a murder trial, after the case's suspect agreed for it to do so. This reverses Amazon's previous apprehension in handing over the data, arguing that it violates the tenets of free speech.
The retail company has fought U.S. police in their attempts to obtain Alexa data containing recordings that an Amazon Echo device may have picked up in the vicinity of a murder.
The suspect, James Bates, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Victor Collins, who was found in a hot tub at Bates's home in November 2015, according to Associated Press. Documents filed last Monday, March 6, revealed that the defendant was willing to allow law enforcement officials to review the information stored in the Amazon Echo device in question. Amazon said it gave the recordings to the police on Friday, March 3.
Amazon Backs Down On First Amendment Argument
Its legal battle to protect Alexa and user privacy began when the company filed a motion against a police search warrant earlier this month. It has now obviously backpedaled, essentially giving up on its fight to protect free speech.
U.S. police had issued a warrant aiming to seize subscriber and account information from Bates's Echo device, alongside communication and transaction history. Amazon was willing to provide the former but balked at providing the latter, arguing that voice recordings with Alexa were protected under the First Amendment.
Amazon also argued that the police's argument was insufficient in convincing the company to hand over the said data, with the officials unable to prove that any potential information wouldn't be available elsewhere. Of course, it remains to be revealed whether Bates's Echo does have incriminating data further tying him to the murder of Collins. The Verge reports that a hearing is scheduled March 8, Wednesday.
Could Echo Have Recorded The Murder?
Echo devices are part of Amazon's smart speaker lineup, all powered with Alexa, its proprietary voice-enabled virtual assistant, rivaling Google Home and its own Assistant. Equipped with far-field voice recognition, Echo devices respond to its owner's queries, picking up keywords, phrases, and sentences to enable certain actions and commands, such as shopping online, turning on smart home devices, searching for recipes, and more.
Echo records commands from a few seconds before, during, and after hearing one of the keywords. It will, however, often record non-keywords by accident, which is then sent off to Amazon's servers in a remote location. It's possible that Echo was able to record the audio from the events leading up to Collins's murder.
Denizens of the internet have been weighing in whether Amazon was truly committed to protecting its private user data. As Ars Technica notes, in its motion to quash the warrant, the company stated that the case could dampen the market for intelligent voice-enabled assistants because the government's access to private data could sway potential customers against exercising their First Amendment rights using smart speakers.
Expect due coverage when the Echo devices brings up pertinent evidence against Bates.