Thursday, January 5, 2017

An Amazon Echo Could Help Solve Murder, But ...

Amazon Echo
A murder was committed. The suspect was arrested. The evidence is being processed. One of the evidences is inside Amazon's Echo. The problem is that Amazon has refused to share with Arkansas law enforcement information gathered in a situation that could become increasingly common as voice-activated devices proliferate.

According to Information, police in Bentonville, Arkansas, United States have issued search warrants demanding access to data after a man was charged with murdering another man in November 2015 within earshot of an Echo device.

"Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us," a spokesperson for the Seattle-based company told TheStreet. "Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course." The company said it would not give comment on specific cases, however.

The case highlights the tension between law enforcement groups and device makers who want to assuage customers' concerns about privacy. Apple has been involved in the most high-profile cases involving law enforcement requests to gain access to data stores on devices, most notably one from the FBI to obtain information about the gunman the 2015 San Bernardino shooting.

Apple refused to accede to the FBI's request and the agency wound up hacking into the gunman's phone by other means. Many other technology giants, including Alphabet's Google, Facebook and Yahoo!, routinely receive requests for information on users from the police and intelligence agencies.

Amazon's voice-activated technology can only be turned on by asking it a question preceded by its name, Alexa. The Echo only records and stores voice data when it's been given a command, but in order to hear a user say its name to issue a command in the first place, Alexa must be listening to its surroundings at all times.

The Echo does come with a "mute" button to stop the device from listening in, but otherwise its ear is always open. The question, however, is how much of that data is being kept by Amazon.

In the case of James Bates' alleged murder of Victor Collins in November 2015, private conversations heard by Bates' Alexa device could be used against him if authorities are able to access that data. The murder case will go to trial in early 2017, and could give more insight into what voice-activated assistants like Alexa hear --- and what data their creators record and keep -- when they're inside our homes.

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