Amazon says conversations with Alexa are protected by the first amendment in a murder case
This article has been updated.
Amazon has filed a motion to quash a warrant seeking data from an Amazon Echo device that prosecutors think may provide evidence in an Arkansas murder case.
The move pits the technology company against law enforcement in the case that could help define a thorny and emerging area of the law: whether, and how, our always-on devices can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.
The case centers around events from a night in November 2015 when James Bates, a former Walmart employee, invited friends over to his Bentonville home to watch a football game. The next morning, Bates called 911 to report that one of the guests, a former police officer named Victor Collins, was dead in the hot tub outside.
Bates was subsequently arrested, accused of murdering Collins and seeking to cover up the crime. He denies the charges, and the case will likely go to trial in the coming weeks. During the investigation, and in the absence of any potential witnesses, police focused on the devices in Bates’ home for evidence.
The Echo — in Bates’ case, it was sitting on his kitchen counter — is a kind of connected home assistant that’s voice-activated with the wake words “Hey, Alexa.” Amazon says the device sends audio information back to its headquarters only when it hears its wake words, and that it’s clear when that is happening because a light turns on. But the device also preserves a snippet of audio from before the wake word was spoken, as well as other non-audio user data, raising questions about the precise mechanics of its gathering information from surroundings.
Prosecutors filed a search warrant in December 2015 seeking “electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed records, or other text records related to communications and transactions” between Bates’ Echo device and Amazon servers.
For more than a year, Amazon delayed. But on Feb. 17, it filed a motion seeking to quash the warrant. “Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials,” the filing reads. In a supporting document, the company argues that it “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.”
“Amazon customers have expressed concern about disclosure of their purchase choices and have indicated a reluctance to use Amazon for online purchasing if their privacy is not protected,” it added.
It means that the local prosecutor, Nathan Smith, will likely have to fight Amazon in court. He argues that there simply cannot be zones in life where the police are not allowed to tread, or we risk creating safe havens for criminals. Amazon looks set to argue that the Echo is a First Amendment and privacy issue. The original search warrant, Amazon’s motion to quash it, and its supporting documents, are here for those who would like to decide for themselves.
Correction: A previous version of this story used a headline that inaccurately described Amazon’s legal claims in this case.