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Did Alexa Witness a Murder?

28 December 2016

From Engadget:

Amazon’s Echo devices and its virtual assistant are meant to help find answers by listening for your voice commands. However, police in Arkansas want to know if one of the gadgets overheard something that can help with a murder case. According to The Information, authorities in Bentonville issued a warrant for Amazon to hand over any audio or records from an Echo belonging to James Andrew Bates. Bates is set to go to trial for first-degree murder for the death of Victor Collins next year.

Amazon declined to give police any of the information that the Echo logged on its servers, but it did hand over Bates’ account details and purchases. Police say they were able to pull data off of the speaker, but it’s unclear what info they were able to access. Due to the so-called always on nature of the connected device, the authorities are after any audio the speaker may have picked up that night. Sure, the Echo is activated by certain words, but it’s not uncommon for the IoT gadget to be alerted to listen by accident.

Police say Bates had several other smart home devices, including a water meter. That piece of tech shows that 140 gallons of water were used between 1AM and 3AM the night Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub. Investigators allege the water was used to wash away evidence of what happened off of the patio.

Link to the rest at Engadget and thanks to Felix for the tip.

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22 Comments to “Did Alexa Witness a Murder?”

  1. I have an Echo in the same room where my TV is. When Alexa hears actors saying words with “x” in them, she lights up and listens. Sometimes she just goes quietly away, but often she’ll say she doesn’t know the answer to my question (which I didn’t ask). So imagine that she hears the x in this line delivered by a TV actor: “Let’s execute him.” Alexa would say she doesn’t know the answer, then that snippet would go into the cloud as if I’d had an exchange with her.

  2. Title is a question, so no. Alexa is not a person so didn’t ‘witness’ anything.

    Did Alexa’s systems record a murder? Maybe, but the odds are against it. Is there anything there that will help the police make a case? Not in that little Alexa box and most likely not even on the Amazon servers (unless the person that did it was asking Alexa how to do it or how to clean up afterward.)

    I’ve got ‘Dragon Speak’ on my desktop system. It doesn’t do too bad a job doing speech-to-text, though when it goofs up it’s a whopper! While waiting to hear what I have to say it’s tying up a bit over a gig of ram and is wasting a few computer cycles, and both go up when I start talking.

    The thing is, that’s just for speech-to-text, there’s no AI trying to figure out what I’m asking it to do (other than a few key words like ‘microphone off’). From what I’ve seen and heard Alexa doesn’t have that type of power, which means most of the raw power behind her is in those Amazon servers. Alexa may do limited audio cleanup and compression, but she’s not going to ‘hold’ a lot of info herself.

    Is Amazon going to give the cops access to their servers? No. Because that would be the thin wedge of the stake through the heart for Alexa and a lot of their cloud service offerings. The first court case bringing in evidence from one of these toys will have a lot of people thinking twice about having one hanging on their every word (or as I’ve seen someone else has already commented — your TV’s every word.)

    In fact there may not be anything ‘to’ give the police, it’s in Amazon’s best interest not to be saving any data it doesn’t ‘need’ — never mind what being caught recording/saving ‘interesting’ data/clips would not be good for their reputation.

    Like Apple not hacking their own phones, Amazon isn’t going to go out of its way to tell what it may or may not know.

    • Amazon may not store anything today, but you can be sure the government will force them to store it in future. Orwell thought people would oppose the Telescreen, but it seems Amazon customers are embracing it.

      • Yeah, I’m loving all the ‘you will retain this info for this long — at your own expense’ noise.

        I’m waiting for some major internet provider to say, ‘You want this data? Here you go!’ and just start dumping it on the NSA or whoever. And ‘raw’ data as it comes in — let them try to sort and save it. In that case the more data sent the less they’ll be able to find in that mess, and Amazon would have no trouble overloading them, heck, just sorting through ‘all’ the audio sound bits of orders should be fun.

  3. Gotta bet there will now be a bunch of mystery novels and TV shows featuring a gadget as clue-giver.

    • And just like everything else, they’ll get it ‘wrong’. 😉

      I still like the old spoof ‘last action hero’ where they hammed up just how badly TV/movies/stories will sometimes ‘fake to make’ their plot(hole) work. Never mind the one shot exploding cars, how about those ‘CSI’ shows where they can ‘zoom in’ to see things (hint – if the recording of a license plate was only two pixels wide you are not going to be able to zoom in to read it!)

      • A chemist acquaintance of mine calls those shows “forensic fantasies”.

        • Which is why I can’t enjoy movies anymore, they get to the point there’s too many ‘it doesn’t/can’t work like that’ in them anymore.

          .

          “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.”

          • Fortunately for me, I have the ability to suspend disbelief to an unusual degree. Otherwise I could never watch my DVDs of Firefly again.

  4. Anyone else feeling the urge to have friends over and play several rounds of Clue near an Alexa unit? Um, that is, asking for a friend. Really. 😉

  5. How about, “Alexa, erase all your history.”

    • “I can do that for you, Dave.”

      “History wiped, rebooting …”

      “No sale of this unit detected, unit may have been stolen.”

      “Contacting police at this time.”

      “Have a nice day.”

  6. The WP has a slightly more recent report:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/12/28/can-alexa-help-solve-a-murder-police-think-so-but-amazon-wont-give-up-her-data/?utm_term=.c59397541f74

    Of note:

    “At least part of the search warrant indicated police may not have had a full understanding of how the Echo worked.

    “The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com’s servers at a remote location,” the affidavit read in part. “It is believed that these records are retained by Amazon.com and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.”

    That allegation — that the Echo is possibly recording at all times without the “wake word” being issued — is incorrect, according to an Amazon spokesperson. The device is constantly listening but not recording, and nothing is streamed to or stored in the cloud without the wake word being detected.”

    It’s not clear yet which model ECHO is involved but if it is one using a MediaTek chipset (like the Echo Dot 2) they might have better luck serving a warrant to MediaTek in China. 😉

  7. Is it possible to change the “wake word” for Alexa?

    For example, say there’s a person in the family whose real name is Alexa. You wouldn’t want the device activating every time you said that person’s name.

    • The alternate wake words are “Amazon” and “Echo”.

      http://www.howtogeek.com/249342/how-to-change-the-amazon-echos-wake-word/

      That’s it.
      They’re hard-coded, apparently.
      Odd thing, considering the things core feature is recognizing lots of words…

      • That’s because without a much bigger/more powerful system, you’d have to have a steady stream of data to understand more than a couple (hopefully unlikely to come up unless you want them) words. (I’d use ‘Shazbot’ if there was an option. 😉 )

        The below is something I found elsewhere, seems this guy’s done a bit of research on his own.

        Re: afaik it only stores the text output

        Both the recorded sound clip and the translated text are stored, that way when Amazon doesn’t translate something you added to your shopping or to-do list properly you can play it back to hear what you actually said.

        However, it does NOT stream real-time recording to the cloud – as I verified myself using wireshark after I purchased my first echo. It has a limited processor that is hardcoded to listen for “amazon” or “alexa” (user configurable) and then it records from that point to the first quiet period and THEN sends up that small clip in a burst up for processing.

        I’m sure that if a PROPERLY EXECUTED search warrant is issued Amazon will be willing to comply and deliver up the data – as they have already delivered the account information requested. However, as evidenced by the filing the police are clueless as to what the Echo does. They already have the perp’s Amazon account information so they could log in and play back the clips themselves. They really don’t need anything else from Amazon other than to hold the data pending future prosecution. The current search warrant asks for information that either doesn’t exist or they already have.

        Until that properly executed search warrant is issued Amazon has a fiduciary responsibility to reject it and hold them to account. Not only does it protect Amazon and their customers, it protects the police against themselves even if they don’t realize it.

        http://forums.theregister.co.uk/forum/1/2016/12/28/us_cops_seek_amazon_echo_data_for_murder_inquiry/

        Which makes the cops look kinda dumb — or they’re trying to use this to open the door for more info/data for future cases. (Also known as the thin wedge.)

        • One other thing, most of these type devices have just enough smarts to startup and make their connection, but they store any temporary data in their RAM — which would have been lost when the cops unplugged the unit’s power.

  8. Maybe investigators are just hoping to find questions asked re how to commit a crime (the way cops search computers to see what terms were searched) rather than thinking Echo recorded conversations.

  9. Perfect time for R. Daneel Olivaw.

    Dan

    • Drop him in the here and now and he’ll cook up the Zeroth law in 24 hours.
      In a week, he’ll build Skynet and walk away.

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