Is Amazon Right to Hold Back Echo Data?

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

March 7, 2017

In the last few months, a tug of war between legislators and Amazon has brought privacy into the limelight once more. The news surrounds a case in which the Arkansas police force has demanded that all the information stored on Amazon’s servers (captured from an Echo) be handed over to them. The reason? The Echo owner is on trial for murder, and it is believed that Alexa could hold vital information that could help to nail the guy.

Amazon’s lawyers are pushing back against the request, claiming that Echo should be protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech. Amazon wants the police to prove two things before it hands over the private and confidential material that has amassed on its servers. Firstly, the firm wants the police to prove a compelling reason that the information is vital to the prosecution’s case (hello, murder?). Secondly, Amazon’s attorneys want law enforcement to prove that the important information they seek isn’t available via any other means.

Internet of Things That Spy on You

For those of you who don’t know, Echo is a smart product that is switched on by a voice command. The device talks to its owner with a persona called Alexa (a bit like Siri). In order to build up a profile about its master, so that it can better provide suggestions and help, Echo listens and stores a mountain of personal data. As such, it is pretty easy to understand why law enforcement think there could be some sort of a clue on the machine.

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This is an interesting case and one that does make people scratch their heads. What exactly is law enforcement asking for? According to the warrant, the police want access to “audio recordings, transcribed records, or other text records related to communications and transactions” from a 48 hour period from 21-22 November 2015. I would argue that this doesn’t seem like such a big ask, and is certainly a request that should probably be granted.

Firstly, this is a murder investigation. As such, I would argue that the Amazon Echo device could just as easily be used to help acquit the suspect in question. After all, if this person did not commit the murder, there won’t be search results like “how to dispose of a body” or “how to kill someone with the nicotine in a single packet of cigarettes.” What is more, the police don’t actually want access to the entire history – only the data from the day of the murder itself – which seems pretty lenient on the whole.

Self-preservation Society

Don’t get me wrong, I am highly in favor of privacy. For example, I made this handy guide about how to turn off Windows 10’s invasive features. That guide demonstrates my belief that people should do their best to protect their privacy (if it is something that they value). Turning off all of the features in Windows 10 that perform surveillance for Microsoft (I hope you would agree), is the exact opposite of going out and purchasing a device that sits on the wall listening to you a lot of the time.

amazon smart

Personally, I am not a murderer. I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of my readers fall into this same category. Despite being a non-murderer, I value my privacy and wouldn’t dream of putting Alexa in my house. As such, I can’t help feeling that, by buying this device, the suspect in question has opened himself up to this particular turn of fate.

If someone is implicated in a crime and there is a CCTV camera in the location where that crime took place, it is natural for a warrant to be taken out to analyze that footage in order to get to the bottom of the events. As far as I am concerned, this Alexa is very similar to a CCTV camera in the way that it gathers information that could be vital to a case.

In addition, any suspect should only have to fear Amazon Echo being used as evidence if they committed the crime in question. After all, as previously mentioned, Alexa could just as easily serve to reinforce the case for their innocence. So, should Amazon simply hand over the data stored on the server? The answer is: absolutely not.

High Five to Amazon

Amazon is right to force the police to provide a compelling reason and to prove that the data can’t be obtained elsewhere. Not because they are trying to protect the suspect in question, but because by doing so they are protecting every other Echo user in the US. This case will set a precedent. If Amazon simply handed over the data without question, then it could be forced to do so in the future – when the reason may not be so compelling.

amazon echo privacy

Amazon knows this, and doesn’t want to jeopardize the privacy of its entire consumer base due to lapse procedure in this case. This is a commendable thing for the firm to do, and is the type of thing that manufacturers are going to need to think about more and more in the future.

In Europe, for example, legislators recently discussed the possibility of introducing rights for electronic persons. That debate centered around the concept that a robotic product with Artificial Intelligence, which is capable of self-learning, is bound to change in unforeseeable ways once it leaves the shelf. The EU legislators feel that it would be impossible to hold a manufacturer responsible for the actions of a robotic product that had vastly changed its behaviors since it was purchased.

This debate brings a lot of things to mind. Amazon’s product is a smart device. However, in reality, it is only really as smart as its owner. In the future, we are going to be faced with robotic products that have the ability to think and act independently. As such, the idea of a robotic police informant, whose manufacturer can’t be held accountable – because the device is acting of its own free will and is doing something that the manufacturer never intended it for – is something that is fast approaching. That is in our future and we need to prepare for it, which is why privacy issues like the current Amazon Echo one are so important and must be carefully managed as they arise.

deep in thought

Think Twice About IoT

Finally, some security experts are questioning the way that Amazon manages user data anyway. After all, hacking is incredibly prolific nowadays, so the possibility of all that data being penetrated and stolen by either foreign regimes or independent cybercriminals is a worthy concern. My advice is always the same…

Humans have existed for a long time without connected devices. As such, people should weigh up the pros and cons of these types of devices before purchasing them. Always keep connected devices that harness potential for abuse to a minimum, abstaining unless they are truly necessary. Doing so will stop your data being amassed on servers where it could eventually be hacked.

In addition, consumers must assume personal responsibility for properly maintaining those connected devices. That means making sure to upkeep IoT devices with patches and security updates as and when they are made available. It also means making sure that default passwords (and possibly port settings) have been updated properly and are strong.

Opinions are the writer’s own.

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