A common misstep in a lot of murders is when the killer looks up something incriminating on the internet like “how to hide body,” “how to kill wife and get away with it,” or “how to erase search history.” Investigators always find this stuff, because the first thing anyone does while looking through someone else’s home is check their internet search history. But that’s not the only technological tool that modern law enforcement officials have. According to a Vice report, prosecutors in an Arkansas murder case are actually hoping to use a suspect’s Amazon Echo device to find evidence, but Amazon itself is pushing back.
The case centers around a man named James Bates who was having a party at his home one night in November of 2015. The next morning, he called the police to say that one of his guests—a man named Victor Collins—had been found dead in a hot tub. The police have arrested Bates and accused him of covering up the crime, but since there apparently weren’t any witnesses and not a lot of hard evidence, the police focused on things like the Echo that Bates had on his kitchen counter.
For those who aren’t hip to technology, Amazon Echo devices are like in-home assistants that can turn on your lights, tell you the weather, sing an unnecessarily long song, or make Star Wars references when someone in the room says “Hey, Alexa.” Apparently, though, the devices actually record a little snippet of audio before anyone says “Hey, Alexa,” and the system stores that data along with whatever the user asked the thing to do so it can properly understand commands better.
It’s unclear what sort of information the police think the Echo will have, but after they obtained a search warrant to access Amazon’s servers, the online retail giant dragged its feet until this month, when it filed a motion to keep the police out. Amazon argues that this is an infringement on the First Amendment rights of its customers, claiming that some people have “indicated a reluctance to use Amazon for online purchasing” if they can’t be guaranteed that their privacy will be protected. The prosecutor disagrees, with Vice summarizing his argument as saying that “we risk creating safe havens for criminals” if there are “zones in life where the police are not allowed to tread.”
So, it looks like the prosecutor on this case is going to have to see Amazon in court.