Police in Bentonville, Arkansas, are seeking records from an Amazon Echo device (for the second time) which may contain records in connection with a murder investigation in the home of James Andrew Bates where Victor Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub last year. Echo is an always-on digital assistant that can answer questions, order items, stream music, control your smart home and perform many other tasks. It is supported by an Amazon voice recognition program called Alexa, which operates via the cloud. “Always-on” does not mean always-recording. It is always listening for its “wake word”, which by default, is the name of the voice recognition program, Alexa. The Echo only keeps 60 seconds of a recorded sound in a room –as a new sound is recorded, the old sound is erased. Only once the Echo hears its wake word (Alexa) does it begin streaming audio and recording the requests. Users can log into their account and erase their voice recordings and it is also possible to turn the microphone off.
The police requested that Amazon turn over “electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed records or other text records related to communications and transactions between An Amazon Echo device” at Bates’ residence and Amazon.com’s services from November 21st to 22nd. Amazon refused both requests for these records; Amazon said that it will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on it. Generally, Amazon will not respond to, and objects, to overly broad or inappropriate demands as a matter of course. This of course does not mean that Amazon will not release the information in the future if a proper request is made (or that Amazon has any relevant data to this murder investigation).
Amazon did provide police with information about Bates’ account and purchase history.
Bates was charged with killing Collins back in November 2015. Court records indicate that the two were drinking and watching football with two other individuals in Bates’ home. Collins stayed at Bates’ home that night; in the morning, Collin was found dead in Bates’ hot tub. Police determined that the cause of death was strangulation with drowning as a secondary cause. Currently, Bates is out on bail.
Besides seeking the Echo records from Amazon, the police sought information from the house’s smart meter, too (because Bates was accused of tampering with physical evidence by using a garden hose to wash blood off of his hot tub and patio). The smart meter records showed that 140 gallons of water were used in Bates’ home from 1 to 3 a.m. –which was a heavier amount than normal according to other smart meter data. However, unlike the smart meter, Echo likely does not have any information relevant to the murder investigation. For now, this case shows us that devices like an Amazon Echo and smart meters may be implicated in criminal investigations and that we have a long way to go when it comes to establishing clear legal standards for law enforcement access to Internet of Things data.