Police Turn to Amazon Echo in Homicide Showing How Smarthome Devices Can Spy on Us

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Police in Bentonville, Arkansas, obtained a search warrant for the audio captured by an Amazon Echo as part of a homicide investigation, raising concerns over just how much smarthome devices know about us. In the case of the Echo, Amazon says little is being recorded and stored, but that’s not much of a consolation for IoT device owners who’re worried their tech might be used against them by the government.

The Echo is an internet appliance that responds to spoken words to perform tasks like turning lights on or off, reciting weather forecasts, streaming music, and purchasing products from Amazon.

It looks like police were hoping to get 48 hours of audio from the Echo in question, which implies it’s always actively listening and storing what it captures on Amazon’s servers. Considering how popular the Echo and Echo Dot seem to be, it’s unlikely Amazon wants to store that much audio.

Amazon did hand over some data, but not as much as police were hoping for, according to The Information. The online retailer isn’t saying what it gave police, but did tell Venture Beat it provides law enforcement with information only when presented with “valid and binding legal demand.”

Whether or not the information Amazon gave authorities is useful remains to be seen. We’ll likely know a little more when the case goes to trial in early 2017.

What Amazon and Google Hear

It’s easy to assume Amazon’s Echo, and Google’s competing Home device, are always listening and recording what we say. Both companies say, however, that’s not the case.

Amazon offered some clarification saying,

Echo and Echo Dot use on-device software to detect the wake word, and only the wake word. 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. 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.

Google says their Google Home device works the same way, and both companies say users can delete the logged data if they want.

For end users, that means whatever they say immediately after saying the device’s trigger words will be saved in the cloud. For Amazon Echo, that’s “Alexa,” and for Google Home it’s, “OK, Google.”

That’s a little reassuring because it means Amazon and Google aren’t logging everything we say. If you’re asking the device to buy ammunition for your handgun and you’re being investigated for a shooting, your Echo could be the key to damning evidence against you. We wrestled with these issues on TMO’s Daily Observations podcast and Apple Context Machine podcast today.

The bottom line is if you’re concerned smarthome and internet of things devices may be spying on you, maybe you shouldn’t have them in your home.

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