Amazon Gadget could be Murder Case Key

John Lister's picture

Amazon has refused to give police access to data from a home gadget that may have recorded audio relevant to a murder investigation. The company says its policy is to only provide customer information if and when it gets a valid court order.

The request by Arkansas police is for information that may have been recorded by an Amazon Echo. That's a gadget that combines a wireless speaker with voice recognition and an Internet connection. It lets users give voice commands for actions such as selecting music to play, carrying out voice searches of the Internet and controlling smart devices around a home such as some high-tech lighting and thermostats.

Not All Audio Recorded

Police seized the Echo of suspect James Andrew Bates, who is accused of murdering another man. They say they've accessed some data from the device, but would like to see anything Amazon has stored itself. (Source:

It's something of a long shot that the device would have picked up any incriminating audio. Although the device is constantly listening (for commands), it only starts taking notice of what the user says once it hears a trigger phrase, which by default is "Alexa", the name of Amazon's virtual assistant. Whenever the Echo is used in this way, a copy of the audio recording is then stored by Amazon until the user remotely deletes it.

What's more likely to interest police is the timing of any commands Bates may have issued to the Echo - something that could help confirm his movements, particularly given he claims to have been asleep during critical hours in the investigation timeline.

Smart Water Meter Raises Suspicions

Even if the police aren't able to get the Echo data, the fact that Bates had smart home technology could be key. He also had a smart water meter and police have used data from that to confirm that he used 140 gallons of water between 1am and 3am on the night of the victim's death.

While Bates says he was in bed during this time and later found the victim face down in a hot tub, police believe he used the 140 gallons of water because he needed to wash away evidence. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Should Amazon hand over the data without a court order? Does the right to privacy outweigh the needs of police in such cases? Does an increase in gadgets that record our activities mean we need to rethink tech and privacy laws?

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Dennis Faas's picture

While smart devices (such as a digital assistant, or even a smart phone) can make technology incredibly convenient, one major issue which will always remain a heated debate is whether or not such devices are recording audio all the time. That is certainly always a possibility, so long as there is a microphone involved, and even a speaker which can be programmed to be a microphone. Another issue is whether or not smart devices can be hacked remotely to listen in on conversations, record video, or other activities without the owner knowing.

That said, whether or not police should be allowed to access such data is also a much-debated topic, so this story brings up some good points. I think that Amazon should stick to its policies and not offer access to such data, even with a court order - otherwise, I believe police and other governing bodies will want access to data for the purpose of snooping on a regular basis, such as with the NSA - yet another hot debate.

BDBL's picture

Looking strictly at this case and article: Article clearly states the company won't divulge info WITHOUT A VALID COURT ORDER.

All the police have to do is present their need for the information and the likelihood that information is available to a judge. Any Law Enforcement officer routinely do so. Even if the judge won't rule on the spot, there are all sorts of variations such as requiring the company not delete the information while the matter is being decided / that the company reveal what information is available / etc.

By what the article presents, it sounds as if the police want to be able to confiscate information without due process.

BTW - as a personal belief, I understand your position that Amazon shouldn't reveal even with a court order. The Internet of Things has led to an explosion of information (and recorders) which are placed in private locations (such as inside of homes). The ability to monitor the inside of homes without permission (and very often without the inhabitants even being aware that their Christmas Present is monitoring their most intimate moments) is an extreme assault to personal privacy beyond the dreams of the most totalitarian govt that ever existed.

Judging by other laws (for example, copyright in a digital age which is still centered on Monks with quill pens) it will take many decades for the law to even catch up with the year 2000 (and by then we will have many more decades of advancements which haven't been addressed).

matt_2058's picture

Until there is a massive reform in law where misuse by government officials, or contractors, is severely punished, I can't support police getting access to people's digital data, whatever format and wherever stored or real-time. Long-gone are the days when eaves-dropping required a physical presence, such as a landline tech to climb a pole or open a distribution box.

BDBL's point is a perfect example: "By what the article presents, it sounds as if the police want to be able to confiscate information without due process."

Without due process is misuse. Personal gain, curiosity, and just being plain nosy should be part of misuse.