Pros­e­cu­tors seek data from Ama­zon Echo for ev­i­dence in mur­der.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JILL BLEED

LIT­TLE ROCK, ARK. | Author­i­ties in­ves­ti­gat­ing the death of an Arkansas man whose body was found in a hot tub want to ex­pand the probe to in­clude a new kind of ev­i­dence: any com­ments over­heard by the sus­pect’s Ama­zon Echo smart speaker.

Ama­zon said it ob­jects to “over­broad” re­quests as a mat­ter of prac­tice, but pros­e­cu­tors in­sist their idea is rooted in a le­gal prece­dent that’s “as old as Methuse­lah.”

The is­sue has emerged in the slay­ing of Vic­tor Collins, who was found float­ing face-up last year in the hot tub at a friend’s home in Ben­tonville, about 150 miles north­west of Lit­tle Rock. The friend, James An­drew Bates, was later charged with mur­der.

Pros­e­cu­tors have asked the court to force Ama­zon to pro­vide data from the Echo that could re­veal more clues about the night of Nov. 22, 2015, when Collins was ap­par­ently stran­gled and drowned.

Ben­ton County Pros­e­cut­ing At­tor­ney Nathan Smith said Wed­nes­day that he has no idea if the de­vice recorded any­thing re­lated to the death. But look­ing for clues is sim­ply “a ques­tion of law en­force­ment do­ing their due diligence.”

Like any in­ves­ti­ga­tion, “law en­force­ment has an obli­ga­tion to try to ob­tain ev­i­dence of the crime,” Mr. Smith said.

The de­vice is a cylin­der-shaped speaker with in­ter­net-con­nected mi­cro­phones that de­buted in late 2014. Sim­i­lar to other gadgets, it lis­tens for a user’s voice and re­sponds to com­mands — to play mu­sic, read the morn­ing head­lines or add an up­com­ing event to a cal­en­dar, for in­stance. The Echo can speak back to the user in a fe­male voice known as “Alexa.”

The search war­rant, signed by a judge in Au­gust, re­quests all “au­dio record­ings, tran­scribed records, text records and other data” from Mr. Bates’ Echo speaker.

So far, author­i­ties have ob­tained only ba­sic sub­scriber and ac­count in­for­ma­tion. Mr. Smith said Wed­nes­day that his of­fice has had dis­cus­sions with Ama­zon, but that the bulk of the re­quest re­mains un­ful­filled.

The pros­e­cu­tion’s re­quest was first re­ported this week by The In­for­ma­tion, a news site that cov­ers the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try.

Ama­zon spokes­woman Kin­ley Pearsall de­clined to com­ment specif­i­cally on the Arkansas case but said in a state­ment that the com­pany “will not re­lease cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion with­out a valid and bind­ing le­gal de­mand.” Ama­zon, Ms. Pearsall added, ob­jects to “over­broad or oth­er­wise in­ap­pro­pri­ate de­mands as a mat­ter of course.”

On its web­site, the com­pany says the Echo streams au­dio to cloud-based stor­age af­ter it de­tects the user’s “wake word,” and that it stops record­ing once a ques­tion or re­quest has been pro­cessed.

Mr. Smith com­pared his re­quest to rou­tine war­rants that seek a record of cell­phone “pings,” which can be used to track a user’s lo­ca­tion.

“It is a search war­rant for a new de­vice, but the le­gal con­cept is old as Methuse­lah,” he said.

The Arkansas slay­ing could be a test case for how ev­i­dence rules ap­ply to in­for­ma­tion from home ap­pli­ances con­nected to the in­ter­net such as wa­ter me­ters, ther­mostats and light­ing sys­tems, said Nuala O’Con­nor, pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Democ­racy & Tech­nol­ogy, a non­profit group that works on pri­vacy and civil-lib­er­ties is­sues. She pre­vi­ously worked for Ama­zon.

Law en­force­ment agen­cies will have to be care­ful in draw­ing con­clu­sions from smart sys­tems, she said. If a case is built on changes in pat­terns of peo­ple’s be­hav­ior, there’s a chance that pros­e­cu­tors and po­lice “could guess wrong.”

“That’s where we’re go­ing to get into is­sues of cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence,” Ms. O’Con­nor said.

The next court hear­ing for Mr. Bates, who has pro­fessed his in­no­cence, is set for March 17.


A prose­cu­tor in­ves­ti­gat­ing the death of a man whose body was found in a hot tub wants to ex­pand the probe to in­clude a po­ten­tial new kind of ev­i­dence: the sus­pect’s Ama­zon Echo smart speaker. Ama­zon has called the re­quest “over­broad.”

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