Amazon Echo is a virtual assistant device that works with voice commands. You say something to Echo and it either performs the function or gives the answer that you want. It means it is continuously recording what is being said because you need to invoke a voice command to make Echo to pay attention to what you are saying.
Police in Arkansas would like to check if the gadget overheard something that was being said before a murder. Police authorities in Bentonville issued a warrant for Amazon to provide audio and voice data from the Amazon Echo owned by James Andrew Bates – the murder accused.
Echo starts capturing and streaming the voice data to its cloud when the device hears the word “Alexa” – the artificial intelligence system used by Echo. A blue light turns on giving visual indication to the person controlling the device that the voice is being processed and streamed. Other than that, no voice data is gathered or stored in the cloud. All the commands associated with the trigger word “Alexa” are stored under the user’s account for future use and to build further intelligence and these commands can be deleted individually as well as in one go by the user himself or herself and once these commands are deleted, they are deleted permanently.
So, before the crime, it is highly unlikely that someone first said “Alexa” and then something like “I’m going to murder this person”, or something to that tune.
But the police would like to access the voice data just in case.
Amazon has said that the company won’t release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served to the company.
The murder accused James Andrew Bates has lots of gadgets installed at his place. There is also a water meter that tracks the amount of water being used at a particular time. Through the water meter the police knows that 140 gallons of water was used between 1AM and 3AM on the night when the victim, Victor Collins, was found dead in Bate’s hot tub. Investigators suspect that lots of water was used to wash away the evidence.
Moral and ethical questions are again being raised about how far the information captured by the gadgets all around us should be made accessible in such cases. For all you know, smartphones and personal digital assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home might be gathering lots of information about the environment inside our homes without our knowledge, no matter what the companies say.
But then, how much privacy should a murder accused enjoy? But then again, being a murder accused doesn’t mean that you have committed the crime. What if all your privacy is violated and then you are declared innocent? These ethical questions will need to be addressed as technology becomes integral to our lifestyle.
The same sort of dilemma arose during the San Bernardino shootout incident investigation. The police wanted to access the information in the iPhone of the terrorist but Apple refused to hand over the pass code or the gateway to the device and the entire thing escalated into a worldwide debate.