Editors' pick: Originally published March 7.
Amazon.com (AMZN) dropped its fight against a search warrant for it to turn over audio recorded by one of its Echo devices near an alleged murder in Arkansas after the defendant gave permission for the company to hand the recording over to law enforcement officials.
Defendant James Andrew Bates is accused of murdering his friend, former Georgia police officer Victor Collins, in Bentonville in November 2015. Collins was found dead in a hot tub in Bates' home, but Bates has pleaded not guilty and alleged that Collins died of accidental drowning. Near the tub was Bates' Amazon Echo that was playing music and recording sounds from its surroundings at the same time. This recording could hold clues as to how Collins died, according to law enforcement.
While Amazon turned over subscriber and account information for the device, it fought against the request for it to turn over the Echo audio because it argued that doing so would be a violation of Bates' First Amendment rights. Authorities had requested audio from a 48-hour period from Nov. 21 to 22, 2015. Amazon asserted that the commands that users speak to the voice-activated installed helper on the device, Alexa, as well as the responses of the artificial intelligence to those requests, should be protected.
However, when Bates said in a document filed last Monday that Amazon could hand the audio over, the company dropped the fight and handed the recording over on Friday. A hearing will take place this Wednesday to determine if information in the recording is relevant to the case at hand.
The Amazon Echo contains seven microphones that can pick up sound from anywhere in a room even if music is playing, the company said. While audio from its surroundings is not stored directly on the device, that audio is stored in Amazon's cloud, as well as on the Alexa mobile app for Android, iOS and Amazon Fire devices. (Amazon noted that users can review the recordings and delete them using the Alexa phone app, but the relevant recordings in this case had not been deleted.)
Consumer Intelligence Research Partners has estimated that Amazon has sold 5.1 million Amazon Echo devices since the product was first introduced in late 2014.
Despite this case showing how the Amazon Echo could potentially be used against its owner, this story will most likely not have an effect on sales of the device, Benchmark analyst Daniel Kurnos said. "The reality of the situation is that people already think Big Brother is watching anyway," he said.
If the case had received more attention in the press and gone viral, then there might have been some implications, Kurnos said. However, so far, this seems to be an isolated incident. "It takes a certain level of personal outrage for the viral effect to happen," he explained.
For most Amazon Prime members, the convenience of having an Echo device to get information and order products and services with just a simple voice command outweighs the downside, Kurnos claimed. "It's a little creepy if you think about it and some people may decide to do something like throw a towel over it when they're not using it, but most people won't give it much thought," he said.
While this case was limited, it does bring up several other important questions for users. First, what other companies, such as Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google or Apple (AAPL) , are also recording data from devices onto the cloud, and what kind of access could authorities have to them? And second, what would happen if a cloud services provider to one of these digital assistants, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), was hacked? "It's possible," Kurnos said.
Notably, AWS experienced an outage last Tuesday, temporarily bringing down many websites, attributing the problems to human error. "Until something big like a hack happens, [a story] doesn't have the social momentum," Kurnos noted, however.