Widely reported last week was the news that a judge in New Hampshire ordered the release of recordings from an Amazon Echo device located in a home where two women were murdered in January 2017. To those in the digital forensics and e-discovery fields, it’s a reminder of just how intertwined our everyday lives have become with a vast assortment of Internet-enabled digital devices.
Yesterday, Slate published an excellent summary of what is at stake here, raising questions of probable cause in the digital age, a battle between digital privacy and discoverable evidence in the form electronically stored information (ESI).
Devices that were previously built to perform simple mechanical tasks now have circuits, memory, and sensors that can detect our presence and record information about our lives. Doorbells, speakers, thermostats, watches, TVs, and even toothbrushes have all become “smart”, routinely tracking our movements and recording information in the form of metrics, logs, or even audio/visual files. In the past decade, the amount of discoverable information generated by the devices in our homes has exploded. Most of us are leaving an invisible trail of digital evidence all around us as we go about our daily lives.
In the case in question, prosecutors informed Judge Steven Houran about the ability of the Echo device, a popular “smart” speaker and virtual assistant (“Alexa”), to record audio when properly activated. Judge Houran then ordered the release of any recordings from the device, a task that would require the cooperation of parent company Amazon. An Amazon spokesperson said Friday it wouldn’t release customer information “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.”
Some voices from the technical community had indicated that there is a low probability that the device would have been activated to initiate recording before the murder occurred, and this seems to make sense. It is also unclear whether the device would contain the recordings or whether data would be transferred to a cloud-based server.
However, Amazon’s Echo has had a quite a history of unexpected behavior – from waking up without its activation word, to creepily laughing at people, to sending out recorded conversations to contacts. We know that the Echo stores samples of every audio command it hears to improve its ability to understand its owner’s vocal style. Sometimes it captures these audio samples without apparent cause.
For those interested in digital forensics, e-discovery, and digital privacy, this will be an interesting story to follow. We’ll post updates as they occur. In the meantime, read more about this case using the following links.
E-Discovery Daily Blog: Judge Says “Alexa, Please Testify in a Double Murder Case”
Business Insider: Amazon confirms Echo devices have been creepily laughing at people
Data Narro, LLC is a Wisconsin-based digital forensics and e-discovery consulting firm. DataNarro helps businesses, law firms, and government agencies preserve and recover electronically stored information for the purposes of investigation, data analysis, and litigation support. We serve our Midwest clients from our headquarters in downtown Milwaukee.
Photo Illustration by Data NaRro. Halftone pattern provided by Starline. Amazon Echo photo provided by Fabian Hurnaus.