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Web-connected devices spark controversy over your rights to privacy

Web-connected devices spark controversy over your rights to privacy

Early in 2016, a fierce battle raged between the FBI and Apple. The FBI had recovered an iPhone 5C from one of the alleged San Bernardino shooters who killed 14 people and had ties to terrorist groups. However, the FBI couldn't see what was on the phone due to built-in security.

The FBI wanted the security on the iPhone weakened, and Apple refused. That led to a public legal battle, which the FBI dropped after finding a way into the iPhone without Apple's help. Now, there is another criminal case in which police are trying to extract information from one of the suspect's Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets.

A man in Arkansas, charged with first-degree murder, will stand trial next year. He is accused of killing one of his friends at his home.

Are IoT gadgets always listening?

What's interesting here is, local police are trying to get Amazon to give them any audio or records from the suspect's Echo device. Law enforcement is hoping that something relevant to the murder case was recorded on the IoT gadget on the night of the murder.

Police issued a warrant to Amazon for the information logged on its servers through the Echo. Amazon is refusing to hand over the data.

The online retail giant gave this statement to "Engadget" on the matter: "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

This poses some serious questions, such as are IoT gadgets always listening? Is data gathered from an IoT device reliable? Should law enforcement be able to use our own IoT gadgets against us in criminal matters?

The suspect's attorney doesn't believe this type of information should be allowed in criminal cases. She told "The Information" that, "You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us."

As far as IoT devices always listening, according to Amazon's Echo and Echo Dot FAQs, when Alexa detects its wake word (and glows blue), it streams "a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word" to the "Cloud" (Amazon's servers) and closes once your command has been processed. That fraction of a second, of course, gets saved along with your main command.

Google Home operates in a similar way. It listens constantly (and records) in "short snippets" for the hotword "OK Google" and if it detects it, its LED lights activate and the recording (which includes the hotword) is then sent to Google's servers.

Judging by how both virtual assistants work, it's safe to assume that they record all the time and they store the recordings locally, albeit temporarily, for parsing before they get streamed and sent to the Cloud servers for processing. If the keyword or hotword is not detected, the audio snippet is deleted.

Click here for a more in-depth look at listening habits of these smart assistants and to find out how to delete any recordings.

We'll have to wait and see what happens with this case. It'll be interesting to find out if Amazon ends up giving police the data they're looking for.

On which side of this privacy debate do you find yourself? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

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