Amazon has refused to hand over data from an Echo smart speaker to US police want to access as part of an investigation into a murder in Arkansas, according to court records seen by tech industry news site The Information.
Arkansas police issued a warrant to Amazon to turn over recordings and other information associated with the device owned by James Andrew Bates. Bates has been charged with the murder of a man found dead in his hot tub in November 2015.
The Seattle-based tech company twice declined to provide the police with the information they requested from the device, although it did provide Bates’s account information and purchase history, the report said court records show.
Although the Echo is known for having “always-on” microphones to enable its voice-controlled features, the vast majority of the recordings it makes are not saved for longer than the few seconds it takes to determine if a pre-set “wake word” (usually “Alexa”) has been said. Only if that wake word has been heard does the device’s full complement of microphones come on and begin transmitting audio to Amazon.
While that would seem to limit the use of the Echo data in the investigation, the device is also occasionally accidentally activated, through similar sounds. Those snippets of audio could potentially be useful to police investigating a crime, as could the timing information of when they were recorded. According to the report, the court records show police took the Echo and extracted some data from it.
US prosecutors and defense attorneys have both found new uses for “smart” device data in the courtroom in recent years, especially information collected by wristwatch-style Fitbit activity trackers. In 2014, a Canadian woman sued her former employer over a debilitating injury she claimed to have sustained during her work as a personal trainer; she submitted data from her Fitbit to prove that “her activity levels are still lower than the baseline for someone of her age and profession,” according to reports.
Conversely, when a Florida woman claimed an intruder had assaulted her, police used information from a Fitbit she had been wearing during the alleged assault that suggested she had in fact been asleep at time. She was subsequently charged with filing a false report.