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Amazon argues Alexa data in murder case is protected by First Amendment

Amazon argues Alexa data in mu...
Amazon is refusing to hand over audio data recorded by the Amazon Echo of a murder defendant, arguing such data is protected under the First Amendment
Amazon is refusing to hand over audio data recorded by the Amazon Echo of a murder defendant, arguing such data is protected under the First Amendment
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Amazon is refusing to hand over audio data recorded by the Amazon Echo of a murder defendant, arguing such data is protected under the First Amendment
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Amazon is refusing to hand over audio data recorded by the Amazon Echo of a murder defendant, arguing such data is protected under the 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.

11 comments
aksdad
Ummm, note to Amazon, here's your compelling need. Someone is accused of murder. The audio you have may be the conclusive evidence to prove guilt or innocence. And there's a legally obtained search warrant. Don't forget that. Stop being jerks, Amazon, just because you think you can.
MattII
This is not a civil case it is a criminal one, and a murder case at that, so that information is, in fact, rather important.
Brian M
aksdad- So you are saying that the government has the right to listen into private conversations without a warrant (before the event)? The real issue is of course why is Amazon recording this information to begin with? Should be - Process, respond then delete permanently
Rumata
Question: Who is Alexa? There isn't any reference of his/her role in the story.
piperTom
This case will determine the future direction of AI technology. Amazon (and others) upload audio and process it on their own, powerful machines. But if government can eaves-drop, then customers won't put up with that. If Amazon loses, then either (1) the processing will need to be done locally, in the customer's machine, or (2) the processing and storage will have to move to a "safe" country, where local warrants are not honored. Either way, strong encryption is needed. Many customers understand that when government gets a little crack in your privacy (for legitimate purpose), they will then make up excuses to get everything. Shut the door now.
Pablo
Why of course... as soon as people stop and realize this thing can (and will) listen in on anything and everything Amazon's marketing department wants, they'll hopefully realize how foolish it is to have it in their home and get rid of it. Amazon wants it reserved for marketing purposes, certainly not for anything so noble as finding the truth behind a murder.
Bob Flint
This, & camera nannies, nest devices, and self driving cars will be the see-all know all devices just around the corner....
Expanded Viewpoint
@ aksdad, the operative word here is MAY be. There is no conclusive evidence pointing straight to a certainty that the potential information being sought is needed. It's just a fishing expedition to see how far they can push their ALLEGED power and authority. The general idea of the Void for Vagueness Doctrine applies here. When in doubt, throw it out, otherwise due process is being ignored. Case closed on that point. If Alexa communicates with Echo via regular telecom lines, then the NSA et al already have that data and THEY are the ones who should be getting subpoenas for it, not Amazon, unless the government wants to walk into the trap of exposing the fact that ALL businesses which have taken out a business license are actually mere extensions of the State, and therefore have no 4th or 5th Amendment Rights. Corporations being artificially created entities of the State have been ruled in many cases to having no such rights on those very grounds. The creator of the thing is the owner and master of the thing. Look them up if you don't believe me. @Pablo. Yes, you are 100% right in your observations there. If this goes against Amazon, they will stand to lose nearly every cent that they put into developing Alexa and the Echo device and any profits it might generate for them. It's merely a good business move for them to appear to be standing up for your rights when they have no need or obligation to do so. Like I said above, the road pirates only need to issue a subpoena duces tecum to the NSA, et al to get what they want. But the bottom line here is that if I were that guy under suspicion, I would be challenging the legal system itself, proving that it is totally corrupted and biased against me, and therefore has no standing to sue me. What is the EXACT AMOUNT of fraud that ANY man or woman has the right to commit? What is the EXACT AMOUNT of fraud that ANY man or woman has an actual obligation to endure? What is the BASIC PREMISE that is being operated off of, in the instant case? Those simple questions totally DESTROY any pretense of the legal system having any valid rights to exist.
Kpar
OK, I am confused. The First Amendment? Free speech, right to peaceably assemble, right to practice religion- where does that fit in here? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to cite the Fourth and Fifth Amendments?
Ed Llorca
BrianM, PiperTom and Kpar are so right. I see Amazon telling authorities they cannot eavesdrop on citizens but it seems OK for Amazon to eavesdrop on citizens. In my world I would shut that two-faced company down so fast they wouldn't know what happened.