Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Did an Amazon Echo Record a Double Homicide?

Law enforcement in New Hampshire are hoping that an Amazon Echo might have been activated in the moments before a double homicide back in January 2017.

The murders of Christine Sullivan and Jenna Pellegrini in 2017 are suspected to have happened within earshot of an Amazon Echo device. The court recently ordered that Amazon turn over the recordings, which the company had previously withheld pending a court order. However, as of yet, there is no indication of whether Alexa captured a recording of the double murder.

Unexpected Surveillance

While the "always listening" aspect of many "smart home" devices with voice control spooks out countless users, this isn't the first, nor will it be the last time, that law enforcement seek to obtain the data that these devices record. Unfortunately for law enforcement, while these devices maybe listening all the time, they do not record everything they hear.

Basically, the devices are always listening for triggering command words, like "Alexa" or "Ok Google," and only start recording (or sending the recording off the device) after being woken up by the command. So, unless a victim uses one of the triggering commands during the attack, it's generally unlikely this evidence will be helpful.

Notably though, in prior cases, Amazon put up a big fight over whether it could be forced to turn over any data and recordings made by one of its devices. But Amazon's fight, like the fight waged by other tech companies seeking to prevent their products from being seen as insecure, regularly ends with it providing the data requested by law enforcement.

Echo Security Opportunity

Given the relatively frequent headlines about smart home devices being subpoenaed for evidence, it might not be the worst idea for these device makers to start building in stealth security features, like code words that will trigger a silent call to police, or will start recording without lights being active and automatically send the recording via email to an emergency contact.

Additionally, smart home device makers can also request device owners complete an optional form that will serve as a "living will" of sorts for their smart devices, basically allowing the manufacturer to unlock or turn over data to police, or next of kin, in case of death or a police investigation.

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