Alexa is likely going to court as the police believe that she may have witnessed — and recorded — a double murder.
Amazon’s Echo speaker with the Alexa voice assistant was present at the scene of the crime and the police want to know what she overheard and may have recorded. The crime was the vicious scabbing death of two women — the 48-year-old Christine Sullivan and 32-year-old Jenna Pellegrini — in January 2017, in the American state of New Hampshire.
While police have already charged the 36-year old Timothy Verrill with first-degree murder, he says he is innocent. Any additional evidence can’t hurt the prosecutor’s case. This November, the local court ordered Amazon to produce any Alexa recording they have coming from this specific Echo around the time of the murders.
Amazon is playing mute
Amazon is holding back. A company spokesman said it would not release customer information “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.” It’s not quite clear what this might mean as the court filed a “Motion to search in lieu of a search warrant.”
This is not the first time the police have gone to Amazon for help in solving a murder. Police had previously sought Amazon’s help in the hot tub murder in Arkansas back in 2015. However, in a critical distinction from this case, the murder suspect — who owned the Echo speaker — gave his permission for Amazon to give the police the recordings. But while police had once described that case as a sure deal, even with additional help from a smart water meter, the case did not go to trial and the suspect has since been released.
Alexa is always listening, but is she recording it?
While it is clear that virtual assistants such as Alexa are always listening, it is not really clear if they are recording what they hear. There is the celebrated case where Alexa recorded a conversation between a man and wife — then sent the recorded conversation to the husband’s colleague. In this case, Amazon said that the Echo speaker woke up due to a word in the background conversation that sounded like Alexa and misheard a couple critical details. More recently, there has been speculation that an Apple watch worn by Jamal Khashoggi broadcast the details of his murder.
Fast-forward to the future
The jury is still out: Did Alexa overhear a murder? Does she remember what went on? Can she be compelled to testify? At the moment, we just don’t know. Fortunately, there are only a few noteworthy murder cases with Alexa. That said, thanks to the increasing popularity of Alexa and other personal assistants, we can also expect them to show up more frequently at the witness stand in a wide array of criminal and civil court cases. Who knows, in 10 years, it might not even be noteworthy.