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  • Writer's pictureKATIE SCHULTE '18

Alexa: Whodunit?

The idea of using voice command on phones-- like Siri on the iPhone or Cortana on tablets-- is not new. However, the idea of voice recordings being saved and later used in court cases as a “witness” in a murder trial is new and startling.

In 2016, Amazon debuted a revolutionary household appliance with voice control, giving it the power to order products online, give weather updates, and play music. This simple product is the Amazon Echo, but it is more commonly know as Alexa, the voice of the device. She responds to a question in about 1.5 seconds, faster than any other voice-recognition devices. Alexa acts as a seemingly harmless virtual assistant, with unique functions including checking bank accounts, ordering an Uber, or even controlling other items in the home that are connected to the Internet. Amazon Executive Dave Limp says the voice is the “next big platform” in technology, making Amazon’s goal to “build a cloud that’s completely controlled by your voice.” This ground-breaking gadget has created yet another million dollar business for Amazon, with this device giving them edge over companies such as Apple and Google.

Of the many questions this virtual assistant can answer, there is one inquiry that cannot be answered; “Can Alexa be used as a witness in a murder?” In Benton County, Arkansas, James Andrew Bates was charged with the murder of Victor Collins on November 22, 2015. Collins’ death was a result of drowning in a hot tub, but there were signs of struggle. A friend who was at Bates’ house that night claims that the Echo was streaming music. Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith believes that the device could provide evidence as to the events that occurred that night and ultimately why Collins was murdered. Because the Echo was in proximity to the two men, it was most likely “listening.” The prosecutor created controversy when he demanded Amazon release information stored in the Echo.

This demand shines light on the problem technology creates in law, especially when technology can provide evidence that potentially infringes on privacy rights. Recently, it has become the standard to collect evidence from phones, computers, and social media. Smith told CNN, “there’s not a rational or legal reason that we shouldn’t be able to search that device.” Because people are so reliant on technology and devices play such a large role in everyday life, it is only natural authorities would look to find evidence here.

Despite this logic, Amazon believes they must protect customers’ information. Amazon is not the only tech company that has been drawn into court cases and refused to share information due to privacy policies. The other notable case being the investigation of a mass shooting in California in which a legal battle between Apple and the FBI ensued. Still, the murder of Collins is unprecedented because information has never been taken from a smart speaker.

This raises the question of privacy for consumers. In an advertisement, Amazon promises users the Echo is “always ready, connected, and fast.” The Echo is constantly listening for a “wake word” like “Alexa,” which upon recognition, causes the device to record the request so it can be carried out. These recordings are stored in the cloud, and can be retrieved or deleted. It is these “always-on” devices that caught the attention of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in 2015. EPIC warned the US Justice Department about the dangers of having companies constantly listening to consumers in their homes.

The sense of always being watched threatens the right to privacy everyone is entitled to. Joel Reidenberg, academic director for Fordham University’s Center for Law and Information Policy, says with the rise of smart speakers, a case like this is not shocking. The defense attorney, Kimberley Weber, argues these devices are created with the intent of being beneficial and it is contradictory that it should be used against you. Reidenburg acknowledges her statement, and reflects on how all technology was first viewed in this light. Voice-activated devices like the Echo, just as phones, were eventually used in courts.

Laws have continually changed over the years due to advances in technology, from using wiretapping in the 1920s to thermal imaging in the 2000s, to storing information in the Cloud in 2017. As technology becomes a larger part of our daily lives it also becomes an extension of who we are, creating an inevitable battle of privacy when it comes to using technology in law.


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