Can Amazon’s Echo Device Help Solve Murders?

IEEE expert weighs in on whether the company should give up its audio recordings

31 January 2017

When police officers discovered Victor Collins dead in his friend’s hot tub in November in Bentonville, Ark., they suspected foul play. To help them in their investigation, the officers seized the friend’s Amazon Echo, a voice-activated device equipped with seven microphones that streams audio to the company’s cloud when activated by a wake word such as Alexa or Amazon. Users can ask their Echo, for example, to tell them the time and temperature, to turn on the kitchen lights, or to order laundry detergent. A recording and transcript of the audio is then stored on the Echo app.

Detectives issued a warrant to Amazon, telling it to hand over the audio records for Collins’ friend’s Echo. The company refused, remaining consistent with the reasoning it used in the legal brief it filed with other tech companies after the FBI demanded Apple break into an iPhone owned by a shooter in San Bernardino, Calif: “The government’s order exceeds the bounds of existing law and, when applied more broadly, will harm Americans’ security in the long run.”

In the meantime, a utility company that provides service to the Bentonville home and measures customers’ usage with a smart meter informed the police, without a warrant, that 140 gallons of water were used at the home during a two-hour period that night, far exceeding typical usage. That could indicate someone sprayed away evidence, according to the police.

To gain perspective on Amazon’s role in such cases, The Institute interviewed IEEE Member Marc Goodman, founder of the Future Crimes Institute, a group of technical specialists who consult with law enforcement officials on technology’s role in crime and its prevention.

Should tech companies such as Amazon give up their data to law enforcement officials for investigations?

I’m afraid Amazon may not have a choice. If the FBI or another law enforcement authority presents Amazon with a valid search warrant, the company will either have to comply or fight the request in court. The challenge for Amazon is that while today the request is for a murder investigation, tomorrow it might be for a tax evasion case or a civil lawsuit over a divorce. It is a very slippery slope.

Is an Echo or similar device useful in a murder investigation, especially because one has to say a wake word such as Alexa for it to start recording?

Absolutely. By default, the device is always listening in the background for the wake word, which means it is programmed to constantly hear what’s being said. To demonstrate that, earlier this month a television station anchor said, “Alexa, order me a dollhouse,” and the Echo device was activated in hundreds of viewers’ homes. Moreover, the fact that the Echo is not recording at all times is a matter of faith that users place in Amazon.

In addition, the device could potentially be handed over to a third party to hack into and get the recordings, similar to what the FBI did with the iPhone owned by the shooter in San Bernardino, Calif.

What type of information could be gathered from smart devices that could help solve a murder case?

There could be a lot of useful information. For example, it’s entirely possible that the victim could have screamed out the name of the killer to not shoot. It’s theoretically possible that a smart device could even pick up the firing of a gun—which can help determine the make and caliber of the weapon as well as the number of shots fired. After a killer leaves, the victim might attempt to communicate with a device like the Echo to call for help. All these bits of information could definitely assist the police.

Could such information also be misleading?

Yes, and the information could also be manipulated or inaccurately interpreted. There will be a new category of law enforcement officers who make their careers examining such devices—including smart televisions, thermostats, and toasters—for forensic evidence, just as today’s generation of law enforcement officers had to create policies and procedures to analyze the vast amount of data generated from smartphones.

Part of the search warrant for the Collins murder case, according to The Washington Post, suggests police might not have had a full understanding of how the Echo works. Should officers be educated in new technologies?

Of course, and they will be. There are many stories in the early days of computer investigations when inexperienced officers would cart away computer monitors looking for evidence, leaving behind the CPUs. Just like then, there will be a learning curve with these types of devices.

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