Amazon resists US demands to hand over Echo audio in murder case

Prosecutors want the audio recordings for evidence, but are they protected by free speech laws?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Amazon continues to resist the efforts of US authorities to obtain recordings from an Echo device which was in a home at the heart of a murder investigation.

This week, as reported by the BBC, the retail giant pressed back against the demand, claiming that prosecutors have not established that the Echo's records are necessary for the case.

In Amazon's first official legal response, the company said that it was required to weigh customer privacy against such requests. As such, at this time, the data will not be handed over unless a binding court order is enforced.

In November 2015, former Georgia police officer Victor Collins was found floating face up in a friend's hot tub. The friend, James Andrew Bates, discovered the body and informed the Arkansas police force.

However, suspected blood spots were found around the hot tub and one of Collins' eyes and his lips appeared to be swollen which has led to suspicion of foul play.

Bates has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

The Amazon Alexa smart speaker acts as a voice assistant and can be synchronized for purposes such as ordering goods and controlling smart devices, as well as weather and news updates, among other features. The assistant device records audio a fraction of a second before a "wake" word is detected, and this information is then sent to Amazon servers for interpretation.

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The "always on" device is not meant to make recordings at any other time, but sometimes, the Alexa does misinterpret commands and wake words, leading to unintended audio records.

US prosecutors argue that the Alexa in use at Bates' home -- which was playing music at the time -- could shed light on the investigation. If the information stored in Amazon's servers reveal activity or words at the time the alleged murder was thought to have taken place, this could provide enough evidence to charge Bates.

Amazon has been asked to provide Alexa recordings for a 48-hour period during November 21 through 22, 2015, as well as subscriber and account information. Amazon has given the police the subscriber data and purchase history but argues that the audio recordings should be protected by the First Amendment.

See also: ZDNet Amazon Echo review

Last week, Amazon filed a motion with the US court, requesting the dismissal of the search warrant.

In the motion, Amazon says that customers should be able to use Alexa and have the "right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery," and as the recordings "may contain expressive material," -- whether this is music or books requested by the user -- the response itself should be considered protected speech, which the government is charged with safeguarding.

"Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials," Amazon said in a statement. "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

The murder investigation and fight over Alexa's data may be an extreme case, but if US law enforcement has its way, the idea that governments can gather such personal data behind your closed doors may give consumers cold feet about using such smart devices in their homes.

This, in turn, could seriously impact Amazon's reputation and the popularity of the Alexa assistant.

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