Earlier this March, Amazon was given the OK by a defendant to hand over recordings to the court that Alexa and the Echo online speaker system may have made of a murder. This is one of the first times that testimony from an always-online device has been requested in a murder case.
It is much more than your average hot tub murder after a football game. This is the trend-setting criminal case for the modern always-on age — because home appliances are now positioned to be the star witnesses in court.
These two electronic witnesses represent the two types of new devices flooding into our homes: a music-streaming Echo device from Amazon and an IoT smart-meter measuring water consumption. And yes, just like your mobile phone plan, there is a difference in how voice and data are treated.
It’s been a long time coming
The sad saga began way back in November 2015 when a certain Victor Collins was found dead in the hot tub of a James Bates in Bentonville, Arkansas. The death was originally positioned as an accidental drowning death, a combination of perhaps too much hot water and alcohol. But, the police were suspicious of bruises on the body of the deceased. But what could have been a simple “he said and the other guy said” case, became much more interesting for technology buffs when it became known that there was an Echo device playing music next to the hot tube and a smart meter measuring water consumption at the house. Even if there was no smoking gun, there might be a smoking device that recorded the murder.
Alexa heard that
The Echo wireless speaker is just one of the growing wave of always-on voice-activated services. By recording around 30 seconds and processing these comments with the help of Alexa and AI, it is changing the way people listen to music, search on the internet, and even run their businesses. So far, Alexa has primarily gotten press coverage for misinterpreting user requests, with a six-year-old girl asking Alexa: “Can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” with Alexa responding by ordering a $170 (£140) KidKraft dollhouse and some sugar cookies. Even worse, a TV news report on this led to additional listeners ordering dollhouses by mistake.
But under the comedy, the case of Mr. Collins raises the question of what Alexa is really listening to … and who controls the subsequent recordings. With Alexa connected to a growing range of home devices ranging from fridges to lighting, Alexa is positioned to overhear about everything that happens in a connected household.
IoT recorded that
The second-star device that could testify is the smart water meter at the Bates home. While the device specifics have not been released, it seems that the meters can either continuously/send data on water consumption back to the city utilities department – or just take a spot reading every hour or so. As most IoT devices might do, the smart water meter sent back news that water consumption at the Bates house was over 530 liters between 1:00 and 3:00 AM on the night that Mr. Collins died, a volume that corresponded to other signs of the deck being hosed off.
Your voice is special … your data is not
As the first case of its kind, it appears that voice recordings are being treated differently than data recordings. This may be linked to the American protection against self-incrimination and the right to remain silent (think of the Miranda warnings). Data recordings, particularly if the device is not owned by the individual, might not be protected. But, we are in new legal territory here. But with millions of Alexa-powered devices sold and IoT connect-ability extending to everything from hairbrushes to condoms, watch this space. More court cases will be coming.