According to the marketing copy, the Amazon Echo can do a lot of things for its users with voice activation and “artificial intelligence” capabilities. But Echo might have another ability people aren’t counting on: the ability to be used as evidence against you if you happen to, we don't know, commit murder?
This week Amazon declined to offer the police access to a customer’s Echo search results in conjunction with a murder in Arkansas. The Echo is the property of James Andrew Bates, who is a suspect in a murder that took place in the same home.
Understandably, police want to see what, if anything, the Echo might have recorded in the moments leading up to or immediately following the murder.
So what does Echo record? Well, that’s complicated.
Echo is technically always “listening.” The device is built around features like voice activation: when you say a keyword like “Alexa” (the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant, like Siri to Apple products), it becomes responsive and waits for commands or requests.
Amazon logs each customer’s Alexa requests and activity as a way of helping the overall service to refine its programming. You can delete your searches the same way you delete a browser history, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re immediately and permanently deleted from Amazon’s data. So unless your victim shouts, “Hey Alexa, I’m being murdered!” there won’t be much danger of evidence from searches.
But it’s also unclear how much if anything Echo is recording when it’s not reacting to Alexa commands. While law enforcement might have their fingers crossed that a suspect said “Hey Alexa, how do I hide a body?” they might have access to other information — potentially hours of static noise as if the room is bugged. Amazon says nothing is stored or sent to Amazon, and all listening is done locally.
Amazon, meanwhile, has handed over purchase and search history in conjunction with the Arkansas suspect’s account. But it declined to hand over Alexa interaction history without “a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.”
What that means for you is that, unless Amazon is lying, or your device has been hacked, you should be fine committing that murder in the same room. You’ll probably still get caught, but at least Echo ain’t no snitch.