Amazon Refuses Police Request For Echo Voice Data Setting Precedence At Center Of Murder Investigation

Police are hoping that audio captured from an Amazon Echo smart speaker can help shed light on a murder investigation in Bentonville, Arkansas. The device belongs to James Andrew Bates, who was arrested and charged with first-degree murder after the victim, Victor Collins, was found dead in Bates' hot tub at his residence. Police determined the cause of death to be strangulation followed by drowning.

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 for them to crash on. Sometime after that, Collins died in Bates' hot tub, according to court documents.

Authorities believe it was Bates who strangled and subsequently drowned Collins. Where things get particularly interesting is when the Bentonville Police Department asked Amazon on two occasions to provide "electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed words, or other text records related to communications and transactions" made through Bates' Echo speaker between November 21 and 22.

Amazon Echo

Amazon refused the request both times.

"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," Amazon said in a statement provided to several news outlets.

Echo is an always-on smart speaker with a built-in digital assistant known as Alexa. It constantly listens for the awake word "Alexa," at which point records audio and sends it to Amazon's servers. That includes a fraction of a second of audio recorded before the wake word.

While it seems unlikely that Bates would have intentionally summoned Alexa before doing something allegedly illegal, the smart speaker could have accidentally been wakened by misinterpreting a sound. Either way, the bigger dispute here is whether law enforcement should be able to use smart devices against the individuals who own them.

In addition to trying to tap Echo for evidence, police have been looking at other smart devices owned by Bates. One of them is a water meter. It showed that 140 gallons of water were used between 1 AM and 3 AM the night Collins was found dead, which investigators believe is the result of a water hose being used to wash away evidence, such as blood.

"You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us," defense attorney Kimberly Weber said.

Expect to see more of these kinds of situations and debates as time goes on. A recent report predicted that the number Internet of Things (IoT) devices will quadruple 5.4 billion by 2020.