That’s the question raised
by a murder case out of Bentonville, Arkansas. On Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, James Bates invited three
friends over to watch an Arkansas Razorbacks game. The men had some drinks, and when one of them, Owen
McDonald, left around 12:30 AM, Bates was still up and around.
The next morning, Bates
called 911 to report that he’d found one of his guests, Victor
face-down, dead in Bates’s hot tub.
He claimed he’d gone to bed and left Collins still awake.
After checking with
McDonald and looking at the physical evidence, police began to doubt Bates’s
story. The deck around the hot tub
was wet despite near-freezing temperatures, and Collins’ body had sustained
numerous injuries consistent with his being strangled to unconsciousness and
then put in the hot tub to drown.
Bates’s home was equipped with both an Amazon Echo and a smart water
meter. As part of the
investigation, police attempted to obtain evidence from the operators of both
The Bentonville utility department
was very helpful. The smart meter
records hour-by-hour water usage.
Up to midnight the most water used in an hour at Bates’s home that
fateful evening was ten gallons.
But between 1 AM and 3 AM, somebody used 140 gallons, the most ever
recorded by that meter in a short time.
This was consistent with Bates’ use of a water hose to rinse away blood,
which police found traces of anyway near the hot tub.
The way the Echo works is
similar to other digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri. It passively listens, holding audio in
a local buffer memory, until it “hears” the wake-up word—in the case
of Echo, it’s “Alexa.”
Then it sends the preceding and following minute or so of audio to the
Amazon cloud, where sophisticated voice-recognition software decodes the
request and does whatever the inquirer has asked, within the limits of the
software, of course.
It was a long shot to
begin with to hope that the Echo would have recorded to the cloud anything of
relevance. The investigators were
hoping that on the off chance Echo “woke up” sometime during the
murder, they could obtain useful information. But they ran into a wall with Amazon, which claimed that
their request was outside the bounds of what Amazon considers reasonable. All that Amazon would tell them was
Bates’s purchase information regarding the Echo, which has been physically
taken into custody by law enforcement.
On the strength of the
smart-meter evidence, Bates has been charged with the murder of Collins, but is
currently out on bail awaiting trial.
In the meantime, numerous privacy and electronically-stored-evidence
legal experts have commented on the case, as it is one of the first to involve
the relatively new digital assistants, and also one in which the company
operating the device has refused to cooperate to the extent requested by law
As David Pogue points out
in a commentary in Scientific American,
one can understand Amazon’s reluctance to give a public impression that every
Echo is a potential stool pigeon.
The product has been very popular up to now, and Amazon doesn’t want to
do anything to dampen the law-abiding public’s enthusiasm.
But it’s interesting to me
to note the contrast between the different attitudes that the local utility
company had toward the request for information, and what Amazon has done. The fact of the matter is, once again
technology has outpaced the ability of the legal system to keep up with it.
Generally speaking, the
laws of evidence allow law enforcement personnel to request all sorts of
information once they have obtained a valid search warrant. Telephone and text message records,
Fitbit data, records of Internet searches, and even video game data have all
been used as evidence in criminal cases, according to Holly Howell, a writer at
the legal website Cumberland Trial
But the difference here
between the smart-meter data and the Echo data is that smart meters aren’t
bought by consumers who have a lot of other choices about where to spend their
money on smart meters, and personal assistants like Echo are. One can detect a whiff of hypocrisy in
the stance of Amazon, whose profitability increasingly relies on the rich mines
of data it extracts from the digital behavior of its customers, and the way it
sells such data or otherwise profits from it. Admittedly, anyone who has spent any amount of time on the
Internet knows that unless you take extreme precautions to prevent information
mining, the websites you visit are going to share information about your
searches with whoever they think might be interested, as long as the interested
parties pay for it. So when you’re
online, you know you can easily be observed, just like in the old days of
three-network TV you knew that no matter how good the show was, it would sooner
or later be interrupted by a commercial.
It’s just something we’ve learned to put up with.
But doing a deliberate
Internet search is one thing, and just minding your own business and going
about your private life is another.
I suppose if I became a bed-bound invalid I would find some use for an
Echo or a Siri, but other than that I have no plans to get one. But if I did, I would be undoubtedly
creeped out if I thought the thing was listening to everything I said and was
relaying it to some anonymous cloud server that would do Heaven knows what with
So I can see why Amazon is
reluctant even to give the impression that Echo is really listening to
everything you do, in any meaningful sense. But as the Internet of Things keeps advancing, both criminals
and law-enforcement personnel will increasingly find uses for them—the one
group in committing ingenious crimes, and the other in solving those
crimes. And currently, the laws
concerning what is valid evidence have to be twisted out of their traditional
context to apply to at least some of these novel technologies. Asking for more laws these days is not
a popular thing to do, but it does seem like there needs to be some legislation
that will clarify the status and obligation of firms such as Amazon when
products they sell and operate inadvertently obtain information that can be
used in judicial proceedings.
The discovery process of
Mr. Bates’s trial begins next month, and so we’ll have to wait till then to see
if the police ever found anything useful on his Echo. In the meantime, if you have a personal digital assistant,
watch what you say around it. It
might rat on you.