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Murder Investigation Leads Police to Apply for Warrant for Data from Amazon’s “Alexa” Voice Service, Amazon Fights Back

Amazon’s Alexa: Data Privacy and Evidence

In an ongoing series of debates concerning what level of protection should be granted to customer data, the Amazon company has filed a motion to deny a search warrant for recordings from Amazon Alexa Voice Service, an artificial intelligence speaker. The Amazon company has filed this motion under the argument that as an artificial intelligence speaker Alexa should be granted First Amendment rights in addition to Amazon Echo users’ voice commands.

This issue arose during the case of  James Andrew Bates, who has been accused of murdering his friend Victor Collins in Bentonville Arkansas in November 2015, when a warrant was requested from Alexa for a 48 hour period from November 21 to 22, 2015.

Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service and Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo is a smart speaker developed by the Amazon company that consist of a tall cylinder with a seven-piece microphone array. The Echo connects to a voice-controlled intelligent personal assistance service named Alexa. Alex is capable of voice interaction, music playback, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, providing weather or traffic updates, and various other functions. Alex also has the ability to control several smart devices.

While the Echo  system is marketed as “always listening”, the device is not always actually recording but often in an inactive state that can only be triggered by the Echo’s “wake word” which in default version is the name of the voice recognition program, “Alexa”. Law enforcement appears to be hopeful that if the records from the Alexa system could be obtained then information about a murder that occurred at the defendant’s house could better be understood.

Points Raised by Amazon

There are a variety of points raised by Amazon in response to the search warrant.

First, Amazon argues that the fear of government tracking and censoring an individual’s reading, listening, and viewing choices would result if the First Amendment was extended in such a way.

Amazon further argues that state prosecutors have not demonstrated a need for the information in question that would justify violating customers’ privacy rights. Amazon also argues that prosecution has failed to demonstrate that the information that could be obtained from Alexa is not available by the use of another method.

In the event that the court does decide to grant the warrant, Amazon wants the court to review the information obtained from Alexa beforehand to make sure that these recordings are actually relevant to the case.

As a result of these arguments, Amazon emphasizes that the company will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand.

The Future of the Alexa Case

While the issue of whether artificial intelligence will be granted First Amendment rights remains uncertain, there is an established precedent for individuals to argue that Amazon should be able to claim First Amendment rights for its Alexa voice Service.  Amazon is not the first company to refuse to release customer information to law enforcement without the Apple company taking a similar policy regarding locked cell phones that belong to deceased individuals. Some theorists have also supported the argument that extending First Amendment rights is plausible under existing legal theory.

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