Amazon’s Echo has proven to be a major hit among consumers. During the 2016 Holiday season, the device quickly sold out and become one of the biggest sellers. While consumers have praised the device, the Echo will soon be thrown into a privacy battle, thanks to a recent murder of out Bentonville, Arkansas. Local police recently issued a warrant to Amazon in hopes of obtaining voice recordings and other information pertaining to their suspect’s Echo. Bentonville police believe the accused strangled a friend approximately a year ago. The suspect, James Andrew Bates, was taken into custody in February of this year.
He has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of former Georgia police officer, Victor Parris Collins. The Bentonville resident, Bates called emergency services at approximately 9:30 AM on the morning of November the 22nd of 2015. He notified the operator that he had discovered Collins dead in his hot tub. During an interview with police, Bates admitted he hung out with Collins and several other friends. The group consumed alcohol, while watching a Razorback football game. Eventually, Bates’ friend Sean Henry left. He, Collins and another friend, Owen McDonald, jumped in the hot tub and drank until around 1 AM.
Bates insists Collins was alive and still in the hot tub with McDonald, when he headed to bed at 1AM. When detectives arrived at the scene, they were given permission to search the property. They discovered a battered and bloody Collins floating face up in the hot tub. The water was tinted red with blood. According to police, Collins had also suffered a black eye, cut eyelid, and swollen lips. Detectives also discovered the rim of the tub and patio were recently spayed with water and two cushions and three knobs were found on the ground nearby.
One of the cushions and the hot tub cover were sprayed with blood. A crime lab later linked that blood to Collins. According to phone records, Bates had placed several calls to various people that night. All were cancelled, before they were able to be transmitted to the receiver. Bates claimed he may have butt-dialed the numbers. Detectives didn’t believe the story, since Bates always kept his phone locked. Police also took photos of Bates’ hands, which had small cuts and scratches. Finally, police spoke with McDonald and his wife. McDonald’s wife claimed her husband made it home around 12:30 AM and showed no signs of a struggle or a murder.
Eventually, police returned to Bates’ property and discovered Collins’ broken glasses, wedding ring, and a broken shot glass. Pictures of Bates’ body were taken and a large bruise was discovered. Police also consulted with Bentonville Utilities Department, which suggested Bates used 50 gallons of water from 1 AM to 2AM and 90 gallons from 2 to 3 AM. This led police to believe Bates had used the water hose to clean the scene. While Bates remains in jail, police have continued to work the case. They eventually set their sights on an Amazon Echo belonging to Bates.
For many tech enthusiasts and privacy activists, the real mystery is the Amazon Echo and its potential involvement. When scouring through Amazon’s product description for the Echo, there is no mention whatsoever of voice recording. Nonetheless, this is not the first time the Echo has been the center of privacy concerns. Amazon previously admitted that the Echo only streams recordings when a ‘wake word’ activates the device. Also, the device is potentially capable of recording continually through the day and night. The Amazon Echo relies on past voice recordings, which have been stored on a Cloud service, to allow Alexa to better detect the user’s voice.
Users can delete voice recordings, but Amazon suggests doing so could diminish Alexa’s performance. Amazon does indeed retain digital recordings of the user. To date, Amazon has refused to turn over its data to Bentonville authorities. Nonetheless, it would seem Amazon saves recordings each and every time the user interacts with the device. A ‘wake word’ is needed anytime the user wishes to provide Alexa with a verbal command. Those heavily reliant on Alexa have probably been recorded hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It is highly likely the information is used for the betterment of Alexa. Nonetheless, one must ponder whether or not Amazon has something more valuable in mind.
Big data has become a big business. Could Alexa simply be a clever way for Amazon to gain even more insight into their customers? Could Amazon use the information to influence their users or to gain more insight into their shopping habits? Apple was previously thrown into a legal battle, after refusing to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino gunman. Amazon may very well be next. Analysts suspect 2017 will be the year of the smart home. Privacy concerns could very well slow the growth of smart devices, until consumers are given reassurance that their privacy will not be impacted.