Amazon Goes with First Amendment to Protect Alexa Recordings

3 minute read
| Analysis

Amazon filed a motion to block a search warrant demanding recordings from an Echo in its ongoing fight to protect user privacy. The warrant is part of a Bentonville, Arkansas homicide investigation, and Amazon says communication with the Echo and its Alexa voice interface are protected as free speech by the First Amendment.

Amazon Echo recordings targeted in police warrant for homicide investigation

Amazon files motion to block police from obtaining Echo recordings

The motion to kill the warrant argues that customer’s Alexa requests and responses are protected as free speech. The filing states,

At the heart of that First Amendment protection is the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery. The responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user…[and] the response itself constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech.

Alexa, How do I Hide a Body?

Bentonville police have been investigating James Bates for the November 2015 death of Victor Collins. According to reports, Mr. Collins was at Mr. Bates’ home watching a football game. The next morning, Mr. Bates called police saying Mr. Collins was dead in his hot tub.

Police arrested and charged Mr. Bates with homicide and said he tried to cover up the crime by putting Mr. Collins’ body in the hot tub. Mr. Bates denied the charges, and police weren’t able to find any witnesses.

Investigators hoped they could find evidence in the electronic devices in Mr. Bates’ home, including an Amazon Echo. They obtained a warrant for his Amazon account information and purchase history, along with the Echo recordings. Amazon provided the account and purchase information, but refused to hand over anything else.

Alexa, Can You Hear Me Now?

The information police could get from the Echo recordings is limited at best because Alexa is only listening for a trigger word. In this case, that word is “Alexa.” Once the Echo is triggered into its active mode, a blue light turns on to show it’s listening and your request is recorded and transmitted to Amazon’s servers for processing. The response comes back almost instantly, making it seem as if everything happened inside the Echo.

Amazon says the recordings are stored temporarily, and users can delete them at any time.

“Only when the wake word is detected will the device start streaming the audio to the cloud, and the light ring turns blue to indicate that the device is streaming to the cloud,” the company said in a statement late last year. “This audio is not recorded on the device. When the wake word is detected and your request starts streaming to the cloud, only then are the requests made of Alexa stored in your Amazon account.”

Police are hoping Alexa recorded something useful to their investigation, hense the search warrant. In reality, it’s not likely anything of value is in the stored recordings because Alexa isn’t actively recording and transmitting anything until someone says the trigger word.

Presumably they’re hoping Mr. Bates said something like, “Alexa, how do you hide a body?” Or they think there’s a chance he triggered Alexa when he said he was asleep, contradicting what he claimed happened.

If investigators find any incriminating evidence linked through Amazon, it’s probably in the records they already have. That would likely be along the lines of a bulk lyme purchase, and since Mr. Collins was found in the hot tub, odds are that’s not in Mr. Bates’ shopping history.

Alexa, You Have the Right to Remain Silent

For Amazon, keeping Mr. Bates’ Echo and Amazon recordings out of law enforcement hands helps maintain the trust customers have in the company to protect their privacy. It also avoids setting a precedent where law enforcement assumes they can use an Echo, Google Home, or any other smart home device as a surveillance and investigation tool.

Using the First Amendment as an argument for blocking the warrant has an added bonus for Amazon: If the court agrees Mr. Bates’ interaction with Alexa is protected, police must meet a higher standard before gaining access to the recordings by showing there isn’t any other way to get at the evidence they hold, and that there’s a compelling need for them.

If Mr. Bates installed the Alexa app on his smartphone, police could use it to see the times when the Echo was triggered without needing the Amazon warrant. The app, which is available for iPhone and Android, logs user’s Alexa interactions with time stamps, and even shows what Alexa thinks you said.

If police can get into his encrypted phone, much like the FBI did with a suspect’s iPhone in a December 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting, they could potentially find what they need to back up their case—or show Mr. Bates is telling the truth.

Getting the court to side with Amazon is a win for the company and consumer privacy. It isn’t, however, the end of the battle. The government will continue to push for access to all of our private information and communication, and it’s up to us—and companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google—to fight to maintain our privacy.

One Comment Add a comment

  1. The information police could get from the Echo recordings is limited at best because Alexa is only listening for a trigger word. In this case, that word is “Alexa.” Once the Echo is triggered into its active mode, a blue light turns on to show it’s listening and your request is recorded and transmitted to Amazon’s servers for processing. The response comes back almost instantly, making it seem as if everything happened inside the Echo.

    Jeff:

    This is part of a far more important, long-range and far-reaching problem of private sector approaches to customer security for their paid and subscription use of AI and other ‘smart’ devices that are ultimately serviced by AI.

    At the core of this are competing strategies that have their origins in very different and competing business models; the one, used by a swathe of tech companies of user private data, including search histories but also personal demographic and financial data, as either the end product or integral to the sale of products offered by the company or allied sponsorship, and the other, championed by Apple, and practically an anomaly in the tech industry at this stage, that not only eschews centralised collection of that same private user information, but hard-shields it at the device level such that the company itself could not retrieve it even at gunpoint (thus far, metaphorically speaking).

    As I commented last week on John’s PD last week (17 February), an advantage of the AI strategy of centralised data collection is the sheer computational power that can be applied to user data and behaviour that can rapidly accelerate the accuracy and precision of AI responsiveness to user demand. This is a fast track, engineering solution to superior AI performance. Its cardinal disadvantage lies in its inherent vulnerability to both cyberattack and third party interception or collection, whether criminal or legal and the resultant compromise and virtual repeal of user privacy. This is not a small price, but one that challenges the very determinants of a free society. The disadvantage of Apple’s model is the that by not centrally collecting user data for processing, less computational power is applied individual user data at the point of input and AI performance may therefore be sub-optimally accurate, precise or robust. This too is ultimately an engineering problem to be solved, and solving it is undoubtedly a priority for Apple if they are to remain competitive with their independent AI product. The advantage of Apple’s approach is the inherently superior security of not transmitting user data where it can be intercepted or centrally storing it where it has to be protected against third party collection.

    Though this may take a relatively longer time to solve, should Apple successfully meet the challenge of bolstering AI performance with more computational power whilst simultaneously keeping it secured at the device level with industry-leading hardened systems, this model will provide not only Apple but their users with a distinct advantage whose impact will extend far beyond mere business models and our current platform debates.

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