A Digital Murder Witness: The Amazon Echo

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Sci-Fi crime writers take note; the Amazon Echo has been summoned as a witness in a murder case. Let me explain.  The Amazon Echo is a home audio speaker system you control with your voice.  The owner utters a “wake word” – a word of choice- to activate the Echo and a bounty of information is readily available. Weather reports, news updates, general queries, and purchases are operated through voice commands.  The operating system – Alexa – is always listening, always learning and always ready to help you run your life smoother.  Amazon’s new technological masterpiece is the must-have for any smart-home, another building block in the emerging Internet of Everything. That convenience is rewarded financially; the Amazon Echo sold millions this Christmas and was Amazon’s best selling product.  But there is a cost to convenience.

Recently, the Echo has been summoned as a witness in a murder case by Bentonville Police Department, in Arkansas. In 2015 Victor Williams was found dead at the home of James Bates. Bates maintains that he, Williams, and a few friends watched a football match and had a few beers before going to bed. When he awoke Bates said he found Williams dead and phoned the police. The authorities discovered blood around the bath and broken bottles and suspected foul play. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.  Bates is accused of strangulating and drowning his friend, Victor Williams, in a hot tub. In an effort to eradicate any trace of his crime, Bates used a garden hose to clean his hot-tub and clothes of blood.  Amongst the evidence is 140 gallons of water used between 1am and 3am. That evidence, however, is circumstantial; running water has never equalled murder.

In an effort to add weight to the case, the investigators turned to the owner’s Amazon Echo that could have recorded the incident. Consequently they issued a warrant to Amazon.com to turn over recordings and other audio from the customer’s Echo. Amazon has emphatically rejected any release of the customer’s data without “valid and binding legal demand.” This development, however, raises two unwelcome but pressing questions. One, what are the listening and recording capabilities of the Amazon Echo? Two, what is the potential for state authorities to compromise a corporate data system?

In response to the potentially toxic and explosive accusation of eaves-dropping on its customers, an Amazon spokesman has came forward to dampen the more fanciful claims and stated that Amazon is a harmless victim in an unfortunate, unedifying saga. One of the Echo’s features is a hard mute that turns the microphone off completely, a device characteristic that makes it impossible for the microphone to hear you. The device also switches off after use, a light indicating when recording has ceased. According to Forbes, any conversation recorded is stored and encrypted on the user’s account and can be deleted at any time. While personal data is the black gold of the 21st century, a business would have to be guilty of criminal greed to risk its financial sustainability. Recklessness aside, attempts to pin accusations of vast data trawling on the company are, without sufficient evidence, conjecture and conspiratorial.  Should you seek a reason to be paranoid, the iPhone in your pocket channels information directly into the supercomputers of GCHQ and the NSA.  One note of caution, however, the Echo like your phone, laptop, or iPad, can be hacked and the microphone turned on, allowing any outsider to listen to your conversations.

There remains a door ajar for state authorities: Amazon remains open to the suggestion of legal challenge, a danger that should be watched with a beady eye, certainly given our current state of war. The Amazon Echo incident is reminiscent of the FBI’s legal tussle with Apple, in March 2016. In that case, the state wanted access a terrorist’s encrypted iPhone and lobbied Apple to design a “backdoor” into the phone. Apple responded refused to bow to pressure, backing its case by claiming that any “master key” could be exploited by criminals and compromise user privacy.

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