Alexa, whodunnit? Arkansas police seeking Alexa info to help solve murder case

Alexa can be the new smoking gun in criminal investigations

arkansas police department asks amazon for echo access
Amazon
Update: After months of back and forth, Amazon finally agreed to give a batch of Alexa data over to prosecutors investigating the murder of Bentonville, Arkansas resident Victor Collins. What’s particularly interesting, however, is the fact the massive corporation wasn’t forced to fork over the data by the investigators themselves but rather received permission from the man suspected of murdering Collins, James Andrew Bates. Despite initially refusing to open up the Alexa information on the grounds of protecting Bates’ privacy, Amazon heeded his request to turn it over to help prove he’s “innocent of all charges,” according to his attorney.

“I am pleased that we will have access to the data from the Defendant’s Echo device since the Defendant consented to its release,” said prosecuting attorney, Nathan Smith. “As with any case, our obligation is to investigate all of the available evidence, whether the evidence proves useful or not.  Since this case is ongoing, I cannot comment on the specifics of the recording or whether it will be used in court.”

On February 23, Amazon filed a motion intending to “quash” the search warrant looking to extract data from Amazon Echo device linked to the murder investigation. The company states that the requests sent the Amazon Echo, as well as responses doled out by Amazon, have First Amendment protection, thus don’t require extraction by the police leading the investigation. Amazon did add it would turn over the data if police found a way to meet a “heightened burden for compelled production” of evidence.

Original article: As the devices around us continue to get smarter, there is an increasingly slippery slope regarding an outsider’s access to its owner’s private information. With no specific precedent established, each instance of a request for information expectedly stirs the proverbial pot. In December, the police department in Bentonville, Arkansas decided to dip into this ongoing debate by requesting access to an Amazon Echo device it believes harbors information pertaining to a 2015 murder. Though the police have already obtained some data from the device, it appears as though it’s searching for even more access to an otherwise privately contained batch of information.

Just over a year ago, a man by the name of James Andrew Bates drew a charge of first-degree murder after police found the deceased body of Victor Collins in Bates’ hot tub. While investigating the who, what, why, when, and how of the incident, the Bentonville Police Department noticed a slew of connected devices installed throughout Bates’ home — including a Honeywell alarm system and, the device in question, an Amazon Echo.

Requested by the police was access to any audio recordings, text records, purchase history, or transcribed documents pertaining to Bates and any of his relative Amazon information. Amazon has not fulfilled the police department’s solicitation for the Echo’s audio recordings, though it has already supplied Bates’ prior purchases and account information. The police department says it already pulled data from the Echo, though it’s not entirely known how much usable audio or text was not only extracted but capable of being utilized in court.

arkansas police department asks amazon for echo access header
Police in Bentonville, Arkansas submitted a search warrant asking Amazon for unprecedented access to a murder suspect’s Echo device.

So what could the police department have feasibly pulled from the Echo device? It’s known that Amazon’s voice-activated devices remain consistently awake while waiting for a specific wake word but whether or not it’s always actively listening or recording creates a bit of a gray area. According to an in-depth Wired article about Google Home and Amazon Echo’s ability to record voice, it’s pointed out that although the devices each search for a wake word, anything said before its designated prompt isn’t stored or transmitted. If this is true, then it’s unlikely the Bentonville police department holds much in the way of usable data — unless Bates uttered the wake word around the time of Collins’ death.

Furthermore, given that the Amazon Echo has just 4GB of storage, most of which is occupied by device firmware, there’s very little information actually kept in the Echo itself. Sure, there’s another 250MB of RAM for storing more temporary data, but even that information goes away every time the Echo is restarted. Finally, because the Echo has no data ports and storage can only be accessed by taking the device apart or connecting it to a pinout on the circuit board, it would be difficult to imagine a situation in which the smart home hub would truly be a useful source of evidence.

That said, a smartphone associated with the Echo could be much more incriminating, as connected devices keep text records of almost every request users make. Of course, this gets us back into San Bernardino territory and the case of the locked iPhone, but should a user have an Android … well, then things get a bit easier for law enforcement. Even so, depending purely on text records might not be the most airtight evidence. After all, Alexa sometimes misunderstands you, and as such, sometimes mis-transcribes your requests as well.

In any case, it’s unknown the kind of damning information this Echo may possess, the police did acknowledge that Bates’ water meter displayed a dramatic spike in usage during the night in question. Granted, a hot tub remains a central part of Collins’ mysterious death but the water meter shows that roughly 140 gallons of water were used over a brief two-hour time period from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. To the investigators, this assessment of the water meter — and to a larger extent, the request for the Echo data — is them merely doing their job. As far as Bates’ defense attorney is concerned, it’s a violation of privacy.

“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,” said Kimberly Weber, Bates’ defense attorney, according to a report by The Information.

With the trial of James Andrew Bates scheduled for 2017, it’s expected the two sides — and eventually Amazon itself — will continue to debate the merit and virtue associated with openly sharing the data of a connected device such as Amazon’s Echo. However, it won’t be until this trial concludes for there to exist any semblance of a theory as to whether or not the actual data proves critical in the pursuit of justice — or if it serves as nothing more than an establishment of an unpredictable precedent.

Article first published in December 2016. Edited on 3/7/2017 by Rick Stella: Added news of Amazon giving investigators the Alexa data at the request of murder suspect, James Andrew Bates.

Smart Home

Softly spoken interactions with Alexa now possible with new Whisper Mode

Amazon's Whisper Mode for Alexa has gone live, so now you can talk more softly to Alexa and it'll respond in kind. The feature will most likely come in handy around napping babies or for bed partners you don't want to wake.
Smart Home

Publish a new Alexa skill this month and Amazon will give you an Echo Dot

Amazon' Alexa group announced a promotion encouraging new developers to publish a new Alexa skill in any country First-time developers who publish a new an Alexa skill prior to midnight October 31, 2018, will get a free Echo Dot.
Smart Home

Alexa will trick or greet you with custom doorbells this Halloween

Amazon released new Alexa-compatible smart doorbell application tools for developers. These let smart cameras and doorbells use motion sensing and doorbell presses to start Alexa Routines.
Smart Home

Second-gen vs. third-gen Echo Dot: What’s the difference?

Amazon's third-generation Echo Dot was just released. Is it worth upgrading your second-generation Echo Dot? Here, we take a closer look at the two devices to see how much Amazon has improved its flagship Alexa voice assistant smart…
Smart Home

Amazon has an even dozen new smart devices. Here’s how to order

Amazon's hardware announcement meant a whole bunch of new Amazon Alexa gadgets. From a microwave to stereo equipment, here is the complete list of devices that were announced, as well as reviews for some.
Smart Home

Vector, the engaging Alexa-like robot, is ready to roam around your home

Anyone who has ever watched Short Circuit or WALL-E has surely dreamed about having a robot buddy come live with them. Finally, that dream is now a reality. It's name is Vector, and it's available now.
Smart Home

Brew it fast, hot, and flavorful with our favorite coffee makers

Whether you're looking for a simple coffee maker to get you through the morning or a high-end brewer that will impress your taste buds and your friends, you'll find some of the best coffee makers around on this list.
Deals

The best iRobot Roomba deals to make cleaning your home a breeze

Keep your home clean without lifting a finger using a robot vacuum cleaner. These nine iRobot Roomba deals not only help you keep your home tidy, but many also come with advanced features such as automatic scheduling and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Smart Home

Keep an eye on your kingdom with the best home security cameras

When it comes to the best home security cameras, the choice often comes down to the one that simply knows how to stay out of your way. Here are some of our favorites, both indoor and outdoor.
Deals

Suck up the savings with these vacuum cleaners on sale for $100 or less

Keeping your floors clean around the home is a constant chore. To help make things a whole lot easier, we've picked out 12 great vacuum cleaner deals available on Amazon right now, from full-sized upright models to robot vacs.
Smart Home

Here’s everything you need to know about Amazon Prime Pantry

The marvels of the Internet have made it possible to do all your shopping from the comfort of your living room. Amazon Prime Pantry allows you to buy groceries and household items online. Here's more info about the service.
Deals

Save energy and money with a $45 discount on the Nest smart thermostat

If you were looking for a smart thermostat, Amazon is offering up to $45 in savings on the popular Nest Learning Thermostat. Use stainless steel thermostat to the keep your home warm and cozy this fall and save energy by scheduling the…
Emerging Tech

Keep your holiday gift list high tech and under budget with these gadgets

Modern technology doesn't always come cheap, but there plenty of premium devices that don't carry a premium price. Whether you're looking for a streaming device or a means of capturing photos from above, our list of the best tech under $50…
Product Review

Philip Hue’s versatile outdoor light strip makes drab yards, holiday decor dazzle

Philips Hue fans can at last enjoy the brilliance of this weatherproof light strip, which offers simple, versatile positioning, a rich selection of 16 million color options, and bright, vibrant illumination.