Amazon Asserts Alexa First Amendment Speech Protection For Echo Speaker In Murder Case

Is Amazon’s Alexa protected under the First Amendment of the United States? As part of an ongoing homicide investigation, Amazon argues that any information contained or recorded by the device is protected under “freedom of speech”. The corporation claims that it is not trying to obstruct the investigation, but protect the privacy rights of its customers.

James Andrew Bates of Bentonville, Arkansas has been accused of drowning his friend Victor Collins in a hot tub back in November 2015. Bates and Collins had been drinking and watching football with two other friends the night the alleged murder took place. As the night went on, one of the friends left the residence while the other two, including Collins, stayed when Bates offered up his couch and a spare bed. Sometime after this offer, Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub. The police determined he had been killed by strangulation followed by drowning.

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Bates owned an Amazon Echo and the Bentonville police believe that recordings from the device may provide evidence for the case. Amazon Echo speakers technically only record information after hearing their “wake” word, “Alexa”. The devices, however, continuously listen for a command and therefore could potentially also record background noise.

Amazon has so far provided the police with the suspect’s account information and purchase history, but not with the recordings from the Echo. In December 2016 it stated, “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 Bentonville police subsequently responded with a search warrant. Amazon has now filed a 90-page motion to stop the warrant.

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Amazon argued that the recordings would reveal too much about the user and their private life. The police department would need to show a “compelling need” for the information recorded on the Echo. Amazon also contended that both the user’s request and Alexa’s response to the user are protected under the First Amendment. The company remarked, “At the heart of that First Amendment protection is the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery. The responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon's First Amendment-protected speech.”

For the time being, the warrant has been tabled. Amazon has requested that if the court decides that they do have a “compelling need” for the Echo recordings, that the court review the requested material first to guarantee that it is relevant to the case.

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