In November of 2015, Amazon’s smart speaker Echo, which utilizes the Alexa voice service, was thrust into the midst of a murder trial that gained national attention. In Bentonville, Arkansas, a man was accused of murder after one of the three men he had invited to his home the night before for a “guys’ night” was found dead in his hot tub, with several indications of a struggle. Upon beginning investigations, police requested a warrant to dig through the Amazon Echo device that was found beside the hot tub to see if it could reveal any incriminating information in the first case of its kind.
The 31-year-old murder suspect had invited two friends over for fun watching a football game, eating and drinking beer and vodka shots on November 21, 2015. They socialized until 1 am when the suspect allegedly departed for bed leaving two of the remaining guests drinking in the hot tub. When morning came, the suspect dialed 911 to report that he had discovered one of his friends face down in the hot tub. When police arrived, they found blood and bodily fluids in the hot tub along with several injuries over the victim’s body. There were also signs of an attempt to clean the scene.
Phone records showed that the suspect had made several unsuccessful calls, including calls to the other friend who was in the hot tub with the victim earlier. It was discovered that this other friend had made it home by 12:30 AM, before the time the calls were made; meaning that after 12:30 AM the suspect was the only person at home at the time of the victim’s death. After the victim’s body was examined by the Arkansas Chief Medical Examiner, it was confirmed that strangulation with drowning was the cause of death. The accident was determined to be a homicide.
Significance of the Case
The suspect was charged with first degree murder three months after the incident. In order to obtain more evidence, police filed a request to obtain information from the personal assistant component of the Echo speaker, Alexa. Amazon initially denied the request; eventually, the company offered the suspect’s purchase history and account information.
The case shines a light on how, as technology advances, police find more and more ways to discover evidence. The controversy surrounding this case lies in the expectation of privacy when using a smart device like a personal assistant. As more similar cases unfold, attorneys believe that over time these devices will be treated much like cell phones are today.
How the Echo Works
Alexa is speech activated and responds when it interprets a “wake” word. Usually, this means that to begin using the personal assistant, one must say “Alexa” and then ask it a question or make a demand. When it is not activated, the device relies on processors to remain idle but alert as it listens for the wake word. This is called “passive processing.” It records locally but does not transmit or store information until it hears the wake word. It begins to record once the wake word is uttered.
At times, Alexa and similar devices are prone to mistakenly respond to what it perceives to be the wake word. It also responds to noises it perceives to be queries or fragments of sentences. This means that it has the capacity to select random words and interpret them as requests, which is when it starts recording.
Attorney Miller Leonard weighed in on the dilemma:
“The probable cause necessary to search a computer or electronic media is if there is probable cause to believe that the item in question contains or is contraband, or contains evidence of a crime, or fruits of a crime, or instrumentalities of a crime. Evidence of a crime can include evidence of ownership and control. According to the Supreme Court, the probable cause standard is satisfied by an affidavit that establishes a ‘fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.’ Thus, in the case in question, the prosecutor must have convinced a Judge that such probability existed.”
Only time will tell how the courts choose to address the issues surrounding smart devices like Alexa. If you have been accused of a misdemeanor or felony offense in Golden, Colorado, Attorney Miller Leonard can review your case. He is a former State Prosecuting Attorney, a State Public Defender, and a Special Assistant United States Attorney. Contact Miller Leonard, PC online or call 720-613-8783 for a free consultation.
For more information about this case, check out the source article here.