Devices like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home were big sellers over the holidays, with people all over the country turning their houses over to digital assistants.
But while a virtual butler seems like a great idea, consumers are slowly coming to grips with the implications of the “smart home.” Devices that can answer questions are also taking notes. And while that may help digital assistants like Alexa become better and faster, it also helps law enforcement listen in on private conversations.
In Arkansas, police looking into a murder have petitioned Amazon for audio recordings from an Echo digital assistant. The murder victim, who was found strangled in a hot tub, had an Amazon Echo, and police believe they can use Alexa’s database to find clues that might lead them to his killer.
It turns out, Alexa doesn’t just record, relay and answer—she also stores consumer requests for an indefinite amount of time, in case consumers want to re-ignite a conversation, revisit an answer, or supply Alexa with information they’d like to access later. Users have to manually delete Alexa’s files.
So far, Amazon has refused to provide the data, claiming that Arkansas cops haven’t made their request with enough specificity. The company also says its pledge to keep data private prevents it from sifting through thousands of records for a single Echo device’s recordings.
So far, law enforcement has just made polite requests; but asking for a warrant to search Amazon’s Echo files could have different consequences. It’s not clear how much Alexa records, or whether the device is always listening, recording and transmitting.
And while people who purchase Echo devices do understand they’re acquiring a digital assistant that has to have those capabilities, it’s not immediately clear whether they’re all willing to accept the idea that their private conversations—all of their private conversations—could be turned over to law enforcement or subject to subpoena in civil suits.
That could have a dramatic effect on the right to privacy, and what expectations consumers who bring smart devices into their homes have under the Constitution.