Amazon Echo In Arkansas Murder Investigation Is Latest Privacy Tug-Of-War : All Tech Considered Arkansas police have served a warrant to Amazon looking for possible recordings from a murder scene. Privacy advocates have predicted a wave of cases involving smart home devices and gadgets.
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As We Leave More Digital Tracks, Amazon Echo Factors In Murder Investigation

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As We Leave More Digital Tracks, Amazon Echo Factors In Murder Investigation

As We Leave More Digital Tracks, Amazon Echo Factors In Murder Investigation

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/507230487/507359612" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Amazon's personal assistant device called Echo was one of the most popular gifts this Christmas. It's a voice-activated gadget that can play music, catch up on the news, search the web for information, even control lights or security cameras if you have a smart home. But this week, Amazon's device grabbed headlines for a very different reason. Police in Arkansas are trying to use its data in a murder investigation. NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh is here to tell us about it.

Hi, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi. And we should start with a disclaimer that if you are listening to NPR in the vicinity of Amazon Echo, it may turn on now as we refer to the voice assistant that powers it called Alexa.

MARTIN: You've been warned. OK. So first, Alina, walk us through what happened in this Arkansas case.

SELYUKH: What we know from court documents is that a man in Arkansas had some friends over at his house to watch a football game, and this was more than a year ago. And then in the morning, one of the friends was found dead in a hot tub in the backyard. And the police later charged the man who lived in the house with murder, but he has pleaded not guilty.

MARTIN: All right, so how does the Amazon Echo factor into this?

SELYUKH: As the police were investigating the crime, they found a number of digital devices in the suspect's house - an alarm system, a smart water meter and an Amazon Echo device. It was in the kitchen. And what they want to check is what, if anything, the device may have recorded on the day of the murder.

MARTIN: Because we should just point out when the device is activated for a couple of seconds, it will record the ambient sound in an environment.

SELYUKH: That's right. So Echo is always listening for the wake word or trigger word which is - usually is Alexa. But the storage capacity on the actual device is pretty minimal, so it's kind of constantly writing and rewriting tiny bits of audio. But then when you do say the trigger word, the little blue light turns on and anything you say gets on to Amazon servers where the recordings get stored. And that's what the police want, they've served a search warrant to Amazon for the audio or transcripts they may have on their servers.

MARTIN: All right, so what is Amazon saying?

SELYUKH: Amazon has complied with part of the search warrant. They've turned over information about the suspect's account and purchases, but they're fighting the request for recordings from its servers. And the company says it objects to, quote, "overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands."

MARTIN: But clearly the police believe or at least suspect there's something relevant in these recordings?

SELYUKH: And that's tricky. It's not clear what, if anything, is there. They're asking for two days worth of recordings. And, you know, some Alexa users have experienced that creepy situation when the device turns on and starts talking without being triggered. So the police maybe hope that the Echo in this case may have recorded something at least by accident.

MARTIN: So this all brings to mind that case where the FBI was trying to get the information from the iPhone after the San Bernardino shootings, and they were trying to get Apple to release that to them. Is it similar?

SELYUKH: It is another example of the law enforcement turning to a tech company for access to personal data. And the defense side in the Arkansas case is really stressing the suspect's right to privacy. He was in his own home. And, you know, the privacy experts have long predicted a wave of these kinds of cases. As we connect more things to the internet in our houses, these devices will become involved in more crime investigations. And interestingly, even in this case, investigators are also using information from a smart water meter to argue that lots of water was being used on the night to clean up presumably the crime scene.

MARTIN: NPR tech blogger Alina Selyukh. Thank you so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

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