Amazon argues Alexa data in murder case is protected by First Amendment
Amazon is currently battling the State of Arkansas, which wants Amazon to deliver any information that may have been collected by an Echo device owned by a defendant charged with murder. In response to the warrant that asks Amazon to "produce any audiorecordings and transcripts that were created as a result of interactions with an Amazon Echodevice owned by the defendant," Amazon is arguing such data is protected by the owner's First Amendment rights.
In November 2015 James Andrew Bates woke up to find friend Victor Collins dead in his bathtub. Police soon charged Bates with first-degree murder, while Bates alleges he went to bed that night and only discovered Collins' body the next morning. After finding an Amazon Echo in Bates' house, police pressed Amazon to release any audio it had gathered from the device across the 48-hour period when the alleged homicide occurred.
After initially complying with requests to provide subscriber information and purchase details, Amazon refused to release additional, more comprehensive data, even after the police issued a formal search warrant. On February 17, 2017, Amazon filed an extensive motion in an effort to quash the search warrant.
The online giant is arguing that the responses of Alexa, and the data gathered by the Echo device, are protected by First Amendment rights, and unless the State can provide a "compelling need" justifying the release of the information, the search warrant should be quashed.
While the Echo device only awakens and records audio directly after the keyword is spoken toward the unit, police are hoping that either the device was accidentally triggered at some point, or that records could reveal it being activated overnight during the time the defendant claims he was asleep.
"Amazon does not seek to obstruct any lawful investigation, but rather seeks to protect the privacy rights of its customers when the government is seeking their data from Amazon," the motion states. It also goes on to argue that there is significant precedent establishing that the First Amendment protects not only an individual's speech, but his or her "right to receive information and ideas."
Referencing several prior precedents, the motion ultimately argues that, not only are recordings of an individual's voice captured by the Echo protected under the First Amendment, but Alexa's responses are also protected. Citing a 2003 case where Google successfully argued its search results were "constitutionally protected opinion," Amazon argues Alexa's decisions about what information to include in its response to a query should be "entitled to full constitutional protection" under the First Amendment.
The result of this legal tussle will set a compelling precedent as to the degree of protection and privacy for user information gathered by devices such as the Amazon Echo. This may be the first court battle of its kind, but as more and more voice activated systems record and track our every movement, it surely won't be the last.
Source: Motion filed by Amazon (published by Ars Technica)
Update (Mar. 8, 2017): According to a report from the BBC, Amazon has dropped its legal fight against the State of Arkansas subpoena and will hand over data collected by the defendant's Amazon Echo smart speaker as said defendant has dropped his opposition to the sharing of such information.