In an interesting twist to a first degree murder case in Bentonville, Arkansas, privacy rights and Amazon’s device, the Amazon Echo, are being roped into the investigation. James Andrew Bates is charged with the murder of Victor Collins, who was found dead in the defendant’s bathtub. Bates claimed that he found Collins after a night of drinking, as the two were coworkers, but the police quickly suspected foul play and the medical examiner deemed the death a homicide. The part where Amazon (and the issue of privacy rights) comes into play is inside the defendant’s home, where Bates owned an Amazon Echo. The Echo comes equipped with an “Ask Alexa” feature which records what the user says after they activate “Alexa.” Amazon retains the recordings of what people say to their Echo in case people want to review them and to help with recognition purposes. Now the Bentonville police are issuing a warrant to access Bates’s audio recordings to possibly use as evidence against him in his upcoming trial.
This creates an interesting conflict of privacy rights and Amazon has decided to stand their ground, declining to give up the information. Prosecutor Nathan Smith doesn’t see why they should be able to do this as he makes the case that police search the contents of computers all the time. He stated, “if Amazon has concerns about trade secrets or intellectual property rights, there are ways to excise such information from what is provided. I don’t believe there is any rational or legal basis for concluding that one has to comply with a search warrant for one’s home or even the drawing of one’s blood, but not a computer.” However, computers are distinguishable from the Amazon Echo in the fact that the Amazon device is always listening — though, to be fair, it is only recording when it is activated with the wake word. But seizing and accessing a computer isn’t the same as seizing a device of a private company and violating the agreements made between that company and its buyer, and possibly violating that buyer’s privacy rights.
Bates’s attorney, Kimberly Weber, of course argues that this search would be a breach of her client’s privacy rights, reasoning that “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.” I’d have to side with Weber’s statement here as the Amazon echo is a fairly intimate device, and forcing the company to give up that kind of client information seems unethical. But I also, like many others, have big problems with the state of privacy rights in the country and so do technology companies like Amazon and Apple. Last year, the government demanded that Apple help them crack the iPhone of a mass shooter that killed 14 people, but Apple refused. Many of the Silicon Valley tech companies stood behind them, including Amazon, as there is an increasing worry over the amount of government intrusion to people’s private information. This tension between the ever-sophisticated personal devices and privacy rights is bound to increase as these devices proliferate.