Is Amazon’s Echo device the crucial key to cracking a murder mystery? Prosecutors in Bentonville, Ark. hope that the smart speaker technology could at least provide some additional clues into the Benton County murder. The voice-activated device is equipped with seven microphones and is prompted by a “wake word,” usually “Alexa.” Once the Echo hears the wake word, it begins streaming audio to the cloud. Experts say that Echo’s storage capacity is minimal, meaning that only a fractional amount of voice data is recorded once the device hears the wake word, and then later is overwritten.
An Echo device was found in James Bates’ kitchen following a police investigation instigated by the discovery of Victor Collins’ body in Bates’ hot tub in November 2015. Bates was arrested last February. The police seized the Echo and served Amazon with a search warrant for data covering two days around the time of the murder. In the affidavit filed in support of the search warrant, the police stated “The Amazon Echo 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,” but it is unclear exactly what the police think they will find. According to an Amazon spokesperson, it is incorrect that the Echo is possibly recording at all times; the device is constantly listening but not recording, a spokesperson said. Amazon has responded to part of the warrant by providing account holder and purchase history information for Bates but the company declined to provide information from its servers. Amazon issued a statement stating: “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.”
The Amazon Echo is not the only piece of smart technology police hope will break this case open. Bates’ home, along with all of those in Bentonville, uses a “smart meter” which measures and records the exact consumption of electricity and water every hour. Police say that 140 gallons of water were used at the suspect’s home between 1 and 3am the night of Collins’ death, which police say is “consistent with spraying down the back patio area.” This could suggest a possible cleanup of the crime scene.
The case raises important questions and concerns about privacy and the use of smart technology. Is law enforcement justified in what some consider an invasive search in order to acquire justice for Collins? Nuala O’Connor, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology has spoken on the issue, stating, “We live in the world where we really haven’t settled the law or the standard of care for companies that provide in-home devices like that.” She also remarked that, “The standards of care — as companies have more and more really specific information about what goes on inside the home — has got to be higher and higher.”