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After Murder, Amazon's Echo Refuses to Talk to Police

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 28, 2016 2:59 PM

In what is likely the first murder case involving an Amazon Echo, police are looking to the smart device for clues surrounding the death of a man in Arkansas. But when asked "Alexa, who did it?" Amazon has remained silent.

Investigators in Bentonville, Arkansas, believe that the Echo might help explain why a man was found dead in the hot tub at a home owned by James Andrew Bates last year. Bates is currently facing first-degree murder charges. But, according to a report by the Information, Amazon has twice refused to give police audio data from the device.

Always On Call, Always Listening

Voice-controlled smart speakers like Amazon's Echo and Google Home have become best sellers this holiday season. The "smart speakers" respond to voice commands, turning on music, dimming lighting, or ordering more laundry detergent whenever you ask them to. The Echo responds to commands beginning with "Alexa," such as "Alexa, find me directions to the nearest gas station."

Because the Echo is always on call, it's also always listening. The speaker itself doesn't actually process the commands. Instead, users' instructions are sent to Amazon, processed, and answers communicated back to the Echo, all in a split second.

Those recordings don't disappear, either, unless users delete them. Echo users can, for example, log in to their Echo app and listen to past commands to troubleshoot problems like Echo hearing "Alexa, play Fats Domino" and accidentally ordering you a pizza from Dominos.

Such audio data could hold a wealth of information for criminal (and other) investigations. Recorded commands, for example, could show when you went to sleep, when you got up, when you were in the house, who you were with, and more.

Can Alexa Solve the Crime?

Enter the dead body in the hot tub. Victor Collins was found strangled and drowned in James Bates' hot tub last November. Collins had been having a soak with Bates and two other friends the night before. We won't go in to all the gory details (you can find a good summation of the alleged murder here), but Bates claims he went to bed early, leaving his friends up with Collins.

Here, the Echo could help tell if Bates was actually asleep or not. According to the Information, police are interested in how the Echo was used to control streaming music that was being played throughout Bates' house that night.

A search warrant states that investigators want the Echo's data because "the device is constantly listening for the 'wake' command of 'Alexa' or 'Amazon,' and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the 'wake word' being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com's servers at a remote location."

Amazon, so far, has refused to hand over that audio information. "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us," the company said in a statement. "Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

Bates's attorney, Kimberly Weber, told ABC News that investigators were overreaching by going after Echo's information. "What they are trying to do is rather novel, but it's a deep invasion of privacy," she said.

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