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Update to Alexa privacy issue: Amazon releases audio files as evidence in murder case

Update to Alexa privacy issue: Amazon releases audio files as evidence in murder case
Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Whenever you need Amazon Alexa, she's there. She's waiting for your next command, ready to give you the weather report or daily news, turn up the heat or turn off the lights. Whatever you need, she's your virtual assistant, and she's there to help you out.

But for every time Alexa has responded to the command you've given her, there are several more times where she's jumped the gun. Listening in on everything you're saying is what it takes for Alexa to work, and that means she overhears some things you may not want her to. In fact, many Alexa owners have complained that the virtual assistant often initiates when the "wake word" (or trigger) hasn't been spoken.

The gravity of this reality was brought to light toward the end of last year with the 2015 murder trial of a man named James Bates. After Bates pleaded not guilty and the case went before a jury, the investigators pushed to have audio files recorded by his Amazon Echo to be admitted as evidence.

For context, the murder case revolved around the unexplained drowning of a man named Victor Collins. An acquaintance of Bates, Collins was found dead in the hot tub at Bates' home in Bentonville, Arkansas. Bates claimed that he found Collins dead when he woke up the next morning. However, investigators believed there were signs of strangulation.

Where exactly does Alexa come into all this? Officials working on the case believed that Alexa may have overheard something that could provide critical evidence for what really took place the night Collins was found dead.

In February 2016, Bates was officially charged with the murder of Victor Collins. Amazon was then served a warrant requesting that the audio files from that night be handed over. But Amazon fought back, much like Apple fought back against the FBI's requests to unlock the iPhone of a suspected terrorist.

You might remember that the Apple instance ended with the FBI backing down and dropping the case. However, in this instance, Amazon wasn't so lucky.

Amazon did push back, responding with the following: "Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such material."

The argument essentially was that Amazon believed complying with such a warrant could violate consumers' rights to privacy.

Why then, did Amazon ultimately hand over the audio files? In an unexpected twist, Bates provided consent for the police to review the private data.

Because of this abrupt change, we'll never know how Amazon would have defended themselves in their fight to protect their customers' private data.

Why this matters

Each year, our gadgets are becoming increasingly smarter. Sales of the Amazon Echo have grown almost exponentially over the past two years, with more than 8 million customers bringing the device into their homes. And other virtual assistants, such as the Google Home, are growing in popularity as well.

For this reason, privacy experts anticipate that the fine line between consumers' rights and governmental control will be brought into question more regularly.

In Bates' murder case, authorities plan to also introduce data from a smart water meter as evidence. So, think about it. Should data from your smart home gadgets - your lights, thermostat, home theater system, virtual assistant, etc. - be made available to law enforcement where it can be used against you?

Technology has evolved so quickly that the rules are now unclear. As we move forward, more cases such as this will begin to set the precedent for how we'll be governed in the future.

In the meantime, it's like we always say: You can't rely on the government to protect your privacy. You need to take matters into your own hands. Click here for a quick rundown of steps you can take to protect your privacy online, and when using social media. And click here for instructions on deleting all your Amazon Alexa recordings.

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