Can a smart home hub be a witness to murder? Police in Arkansas certainly seem to think so.
After finding an Amazon Echo at the scene of a murder in late 2015 and executing a warrant to seize the device, police in Bentonville, Arkansas asked Amazon to turn over data from the hub that they believe could serve as evidence in the case.
According to the warrant, the Echo was being used to stream music the night 47-year-old Victor Collins and two friends gathered at James Andrew Bates’ home for drinks. The next morning, Bates found Collins dead, floating face-up in the bloodstained water of the hot tub on the back patio.
Police subsequently arrested Bates for Collins’ murder based on physical evidence, but detectives believed the Echo – which contains an array of seven microphones and is constantly on alert for the “wake word” to make it responsive – may have recorded some of what transpired in the house during the early morning hours of Nov. 22, 2015.
As reported by The Verge, a warrant issued to Amazon specifically requested the company provide data in the form of “audio recordings, transcribed records, or other text records” that passed between the Echo and Amazon’s servers the night of the murder, as well as Bates’ subscriber information and billing records.
“The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or ‘Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com’s servers at a remote location,” the search warrant reads. “It is believed that these records are retained by Amazon.com and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.”
As of April, police noted Amazon had only complied with part of the warrant, supplying them with subscriber information and purchase history, but not the other data requested. While Amazon has not yet responded to a request for comment, the company said in a statement to The Verge that it “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
Still, police haven’t given up on gathering information from the Echo and two other devices – Collins’ LG cell phone and Bates’ Huawei Nexus – collected in the case.
An August return of the device search warrant indicated detectives were able to extract data from the Echo and LG phone, but were blocked from doing so on the Huawei phone thanks to encryption at the chipset level.
Bentonville police on Wednesday declined to comment on what evidence had already been collected from the devices, but prosecuting attorney Nathan Smith indicated there is more yet to be taken from the hub.
“We still need data from the device,” Smith said. “Maybe it’s something, maybe it’s nothing. But we have an obligation to find out what’s on it.”
The police quest for information from a smart hub comes at the end of a year of discussion and debate around user privacy struggles between government officials, law enforcement, and tech companies. But while some of the most notable cases of 2016 – including Apple’s tussle with the FBI over access to a terrorist’s locked cell phone and the government’s request for user information from encrypted communication app Signal – centered on smartphones and apps associated with them, it seems smart home hubs are opening a new frontier in the fight. And the issue will only become more prominent as the devices proliferate.
Earlier this week, Amazon said it sold “millions of Alexa devices” and noted sales of Amazon Echo devices were up nine-fold over last year’s holiday season.
“Echo and Echo Dot were the best-selling products across Amazon this year, and we’re thrilled that millions of new customers will be introduced to Alexa as a result,” the company said in a press release. “Despite our best efforts and ramped-up production, we still had trouble keeping them in stock.”
Bates, 32, pleaded not guilty in April to the first-degree murder and a count of tampering with evidence count, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. He has been free on bond since April. The next scheduled court appearance is a motions hearing in March, Smith said.
Seth Augenstein, senior science writer for Forensic Magazine, contributed to this story.