Amazon Hasn’t Turned Over Echo Recordings Related To Murder Investigation

Nearly two months after police investigating a homicide in Arkansas served Amazon with search warrants, requesting any information that may have been stored on an Echo speaker located inside the suspect’s home. They wanted to know if the device’s “Alexa” virtual assistant had recorded any evidence of the murder, but Amazon has thus far refused to turn this information over to authorities.

Amazon last week filed a 91-page motion [PDF] to quash the search warrant, claiming that there hasn’t been a basis to conclude that the investigation is more important than the customer’s right to privacy. Amazon argues that information contained or recorded by the device is protected by the First Amendment.

Amazon says it is not trying to obstruct a lawful investigation, but is seeking to protect the privacy rights of its customers.

The company first became involved in the murder investigation back in December when authorities in Bentonville, AR, filed search warrants requesting any information that may have been recorded by the suspect’s Echo speaker located in a home where a homicide occurred in November 2015.

The police believe that possible Echo recordings from Nov. 21 and Nov. 22, 2015 may provide evidence in the case against a man accused of drowning another man in a hot tub.

While the Echo only records after hearing its wake word, “Alexa,” it is constantly listening for the command. Because of this, police believe that the device may have recorded ambient or background noise at the time of the murder.

Amazon previously provided police with the suspect’s account information and purchase history, but not the data transmitted from the Echo to Amazon’s servers.

According to Amazon’s recent filing, the warrant should be quashed unless the court finds that the state has met heightened burden for compelled production of such materials.

Specifically, authorities must demonstrate a compelling need for the information sought, including that it is not available from other sources, and a sufficient connection between the information and the subject of the criminal investigation.

Amazon argues that the recordings made by the speaker are protected speech under the First Amendment and that information potentially contained on the device would reveal too much about the user and their interests.

“Once the Echo device detects the wake word, the Alexa Voice Service endeavors to respond to any ensuing voice communications detected in the user’s home,” the company says. “Accordingly, searching Alexa’s recordings is not the same as searching a drawer, a pocket, or a glove compartment. Like cell phones, such modern ‘smart’ electronic devices contain a multitude of data that can ‘reveal much more in combination than any isolated record,’ allowing those with access to it to reconstruct ‘[t]he sum of an individual’s private life.'”

As a result, the recordings stored by Amazon for a subscriber’s Echo device will usually be both the user’s speech, in the form of a request for information from Alexa, and a transcript or depiction of the Alexa Voice Service response conveying the information it determines would be most responsive to the user’s query.

According to Amazon, both types of information are protected speech under the First Amendment.

If the court determines that prosecutors have met the heightened burden, Amazon is asking the court to review the requested material first to ensure that it is actually relevant to the case.

A rep for Amazon tells the Associated Press that the company “will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.