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Amazon hands over Echo data in murder case

8 March 2017

From CNet:

Amazon’s mounting First Amendment battle has reached an anticlimactic end.

The company agreed to hand over user data of an Amazon Echo speaker for a murder trial in Arkansas, after it spent months pushing back against a warrant for the information. Amazon changed its position after the user, defendant James Andrew Bates, consented to the disclosure, according to a court filing that was made public Monday.

Before Bates consented, Amazon just last month offered a strong defense against releasing the user information, with the company saying Bates’ audio recordings with the Echo were protected under the First Amendment.

. . . .

Amazon’s disclosure of the recordings by the device sidesteps a potentially significant legal battle pitting users’ privacy against law enforcement’s needs to investigate major crimes. The case offered an early hint at the possible legal complications posed by emerging smart home and internet of things products, which can track users’ activities and movements. However, like a similar battle between Apple and the FBI over unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone, this case too ended without setting any legal precedent.

. . . .

Amazon only partially fulfilled the warrant’s requests, saying the First Amendment protects users’ queries to the Echo and Alexa, the voice assistant running the device. Additionally, Alexa’s responses are also protected, the company had said.

Link to the rest at CNet and thanks to Patricia for the tip.


12 Comments to “Amazon hands over Echo data in murder case”

  1. Patricia Sierra

    I’ll bet prosecutors are going to be very disappointed in what they get from those recordings.

    • Like breaking into the iphone, it’s not what they get out of it, but driving that thin wedge in to be able to get that and maybe even more the next time they ask/demand it (which is why Apple/Amazon/anyone else fights it at every step.)

      • But Amazon didn’t cave. The defendant did, so there is still no legal precedent set for handing the data over, outside of a FISA court ruling (which theoretically always involves at least one foreign national).

  2. What I’m confused about is what the recordings will be of. Supposedly, Alexa doesn’t record anything that doesn’t address it directly. Does this mean that it does? Is Alexa listening and recording everything?

    Or does it mean that all that’s getting handed over are their lists of requested songs and the daily market brief (or whatever)?

    • Patricia Sierra

      If you go into your Echo app, you can listen to what’s recorded and tell Alexa if that’s what you actually said. That supposedly trains her. My living room Echo “listens” when a word with an x in it is said on TV. Alexa will tell me she didn’t understand my question, which I didn’t ask — but she has probably recorded whatever was on TV when she was listening. Picking up movie dialogue might make for some interesting listening. Example: “It’s an excellent idea to kill him.” Alex would hear “excellent” and record what follows.

    • A friend of mine was an Amazon software engineer until recently (he died suddenly in Feb). He did not work on Alexa products, but seemed to know quite a bit about the project. He told me that data storage and network bandwidth is an issue. The footprint in the home is supposed to be minimal. They are thinking about devices much smaller than the dot. Therefore,minimal local storage. Network impact is also supposed to be minimal. Imagine a house where every device with a microphone and speaker, or access to a microphone and speaker, has Alexa living in it. With hundreds of Alexa implementations, you don’t want them slurping bandwidth. You also want the implementation to be dirt cheap and ultra-reliable. All this argues for a server-centric design that is extremely selective about what is stored or goes on the wire. He was very skeptical that any worthwhile evidence could be extracted from Alexa.

      Did my friend know what he was talking about? Maybe. I was surprised that he said to me as much as he did without a signed NDA. I don’t think I would have said as much. My best guess is that he was reporting office rumor arising from the Arkansas murder trial.

      My own attitude toward Alexa is that it is a dangerous technology. As it is currently implemented, it probably is largely innocuous. However, I have no doubt that the Alexa system is hackable by someone with sufficient skills and resources. At that point, all bets are off. Of course, the same caution applies to anything with a microphone, camera, or any other sensor that is connected to a network. Phones, security cameras, televisions, refrigerators. Everything connected to the network is subject to subversion, and, as we all should know, governments (foreign and domestic), voyeuristic corporations, just plain voyeurs, gangsters, and curious teenagers are all out there hacking away.

      Nevertheless, we have dots in two rooms and itch for another. You have to keep your head tightly wrapped with conspiracy-fear repellent tin foil, or you could get skittish about the 21st Century.

      • Patricia Sierra

        I’m not fearful when it comes to technology. I’m not interesting enough to be spied on. And I have security on my router.

        • I don’t mean to scare you. Having security on your router is essential. A secure router eliminates a swarm of nasty threats, but a secure router will not stop many of weapons revealed in the latest Wiki Leaks, for example. In the case of Alexa, if I were planning a hack, I think I would go for the Amazon server, not the local device behind the local router. Admittedly, Amazon must have some formidable security, but there are ways, especially if you have the resources of a government behind you.

          Security by obscurity is an under rated strategy, possibly the most effective strategy. It worked for Apple for decades.

          For writers, I have a suggestion: encrypt your manuscripts. Put a password on the docx in Word. Keep the passwords on a piece of paper and imagine it is a bundle of hundred dollar bills. Encryption is only slightly annoying and it greatly increases your control of what is yours. It is not a replacement for good backups and all encryption can be broken eventually, but it moves you way ahead.

    • “Supposedly, Alexa doesn’t record anything that doesn’t address it directly.”

      Various parties with the necessary equipment and know-how have verified, by monitoring network traffic, that the Echo or Dot appears to work as Amazon has outlined: It constantly stores what it hears locally in a small memory buffer, checking only for the wake word (one of “Alexa”, “Echo”, “Amazon”, or “Computer”) and when it “thinks” it heard that word (i.e., when a portion of the data in that buffer seems to match the correct pattern), the recording of the wake word and everything that immediately follows it is transmitted to Amazon’s servers for further processing. (That’s why there are only a limited number of wake words, instead of you being able to rename Alexa anything you want — there isn’t enough processing power in the device itself to expeditiously deal with more than just picking out one of those words.)

      That further processing either identifies the contents of the recording as a command OR as something not actually intended for the device (for instance, the system is getting better about rejecting “commands” that are actually coming from Amazon’s own tv ads). You might notice when the latter occurs, if you see the echo or dot light up but then not say anything.

      As to whether the authorities would ever solve a murder with the recordings stored on Amazon’s servers, well… if the crime happened to be committed by someone named Alexa, there might be a recording of the victim saying “Alexa, no! Don’t shoot me with that gun you have in your hand!”*

      *Actual line of dialogue from the radio show Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons (except for the name “Alexa”).

      • If the owner knew somebody named Alexa, they probably would be using a different wake word. 🙂

        Makes it even less likely.

  3. All of this assumes that law in forcements motives are benine, which is unlikely.
    More likely is that the partial recordings will be used In other more sinister ways, can you imagine what would happen if the media got hold of Alexas without the correct context?

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