Amazon Echo Home Recordings At Center Of Murder Trial As Judge Orders Data Release

Activist Post – by Nicholas West

A new type of court case has been slowly but steadily emerging within the American legal system: alleged crimes being detected from data supplied by smart devices. The very nature of the 1st, 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution appears to be at stake.

In December 2016, an Arkansas murder case made headlines not so much for the death itself, but how a suspect was brought into custody. James Bates hosted a party at his Bentonville home on the night of November 21st, 2015. At some point during the event a man drowned in a hot tub on the property.  Bates claimed to have found the victim the next morning when he awoke, stating that it was a tragic accident, but Arkansas police obtained smart water meter readings that showed an anomaly between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Based solely on this data – and obtained without a warrant – Bates was arrested and charged with 1st degree murder.  

Somewhat ironically, James Bates subsequently requested recordings from his Amazon Echo to defend himself against these charges, which resulted in Amazon waiving their standard privacy conditions.

However, a new case offers the reverse: a New Hampshire judge appears ready to demand that Amazon turn over recordings from the home where two women were allegedly stabbed to death by Timothy Verrill. Verrill has pleaded not guilty, and this appears to be the first case in the state of New Hampshire where a judge is willing to summon data from a smart device – an Amazon Echo speaker – as evidence that could be central to a trial. The implications of this have also been stated by legal experts:

“I think most people probably don’t even realize that Alexa is taking account of what’s going on in your house, in addition to responding to your demands and commands,” said Albert Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

For its part, Amazon has stated that “the company won’t release any information until a valid legal demand has been properly served.” It’s likely that will happen based on what other smart tech companies have done, both large and small.

I have previously written about several other cases where alleged crimes have been reported by home gadgets like smart metersFitbits and more. Google Nest was recently revealed to have become the first company in the world to have cooperated with police to release footage from its live camera feeds.

While courts don’t seem to have adopted any universal rules of the road for data admission, the most recent cases offer some pretty clear writing on the wall that we could see the American justice system rewritten to include in-home consumer devices as valid tools of law enforcement.

As this information becomes more widely used, will we begin seeing false arrests based upon faulty digital readings and/or hacks?

Ninety-nine percent of crime will now have a digital component … We have these little sensors all over. We’re wearing them and they’re in our homes. — Jonathan Rajewski, a digital forensics instructor at Champlain College in Vermont. (Source)

It will definitely be something in five or 10 years, in every case, we will look to see if this information is available —  Virginia State Police Special Agent Robert Brown III of the High Technology Division. (Source)

Nicholas West writes for Activist Post.

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