Authorities Seek Amazon Echo Data in a Murder Case, Raising Questions About IoT Privacy

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Dec 28, 2016
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After multiple Mirai attacks these past few months, users have wondered how secure internet connected devices really are. Following the news of Wynn Las Vegas installing an Amazon Echo in each of its over 4,000 rooms, questions were also raised about the privacy of guests in these futuristic hotel rooms. A court case will further fuel these concerns of security and user privacy as Arkansas police issued a warrant for Amazon to hand over any records from an Echo belonging to James Andrew Bates. Bates has been charged with the murder Victor Collins, who was found dead in his hot tub in November 2015.

Amazon’s Echo is designed to help you by listening for your voice commands. However, it is repeatedly said that the device constantly listens in, and thus could possibly help the authorities. The affidavit for a search warrant from Bentonville police said:

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. It is believed that these records are retained by Amazon.com and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.

It is clear that the authorities – or even the public, for that matter – isn’t really sure about how Echo handles information requests. Does it really constantly capture audio data instead of just waiting for the wake word? Echo is said to only capture audio and stream it to the Amazon servers when the device hears the wake word “Alexa”. To indicate that the assistant is in listening mode, a ring on the top of the device also turns blue. These recordings are stored in the cloud until a customer deletes them.

While the Echo is activated by specific words, it’s not unlikely for the IoT (Internet of Things) devices to start listening by accident. And the Arkansas police wants to know if Echo overheard something that could help with the murder case.

Amazon refuses to let police access Echo data

Amazon has refused to hand over data, twice declining to provide the police with the requested information. The tech company did, however, provide account information and purchase history of Bates.

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course,” the company spokesperson said. In a separate statement, the Seattle-based tech giant also boasted that the Echo and Echo Dot were “the best-selling products across Amazon this year.”

Similar to the San Bernardino case where FBI and Apple fought a long battle, it will be interesting to see how the IoT devices are also dragged into this increasing tension between the tech industry and the intelligence community. Will these smart devices end up being yet another target for surveillance?

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