The lifeless body of a man was discovered at an Arkansas home where signs of a struggle were scattered all around. The police also discovered a possible witness at the crime scene, but this was not your run-of-the-mill witness, it is a device called the Amazon Echo. They have confiscated the Echo, but Amazon won’t give up the data needed for the cops to explore what this device might offer for possible evidence. They believe it may have picked up something regarding this altercation leading to the man’s death.
The man’s body was found face-up in a hot tub and he had injuries that suggested he had met with foul play. Police believe the Amazon Echo might be the key for discovering what transpired to cause this man’s death. This is now a homicide case that’s also offered up a few scary thoughts for owners of these virtual assistant devices today, like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home.
James Bates called 911 after finding his buddy dead in the backyard hot tub of his Arkansas home following a night of watching football and some partying with friends. Bates told police he had a group of his co-workers over and two of them decided just to sleep at his house after a night of drinking. When Bates got up the next morning he found one of his buddies, Victor Collins, dead in the hot tub and called 911.
The initial investigation by the police suggested Collins was a victim of a homicide, which was later confirmed by an Arkansas coroner. The police described the scene as having broken bottles and blood speckled around the hot tub. Collins left eye and lip were swollen and darkened. All signs pointed to Collins being a victim of foul play, so the police deemed Collins’ death a homicide and went forward with their investigation into his murder, according to the Washington Post.
With a search warrant in hand, one of the first things police noticed was how the Bates’ home was fitted with all the latest technology. There was a “bevy of smart home devices” scattered around the house, including a Honeywell alarm system, a Nest thermometer, a wireless weather monitoring system, and the Amazon Echo.
The police took custody of the Echo and they’ve served Amazon with a warrant that stated they had “reason to believe Amazon.com is in possession of records related to a homicide investigation being conducted by the Bentonville Police Department.” The warrant was to obtain the data they believed the “constantly listening” Echo had streamed and then stored in an undisclosed location.
Detectives believed that the Echo may have recorded pieces of a conversation or just a few words that were said during the evening at that home. As Fox News live conveys on Wednesday, the Echo is a device that is always on, but it doesn’t respond unless you call it by name, “Alexa.” Still, there might have been some questions asked of the device during the evening that could be of some use in the homicide investigation. Fox suggests that if someone asked the Echo how to get blood out of a carpet, for example, that would be the kind of thing the cops might find helpful.
This is a case to watch: prosecution trying to get Amazon Echo data in murder case. https://t.co/GSN0MhNolU— Elizabeth Joh (@elizabeth_joh) December 28, 2016
If the police get lucky with this device, it might hold some bits and pieces of a conversation that could be of some help, but police will have to get by the Amazon roadblock first. In order for the police to even get a chance at getting lucky, they will have to get Amazon to hand over the data. This is something Amazon is refusing to do right now, citing they will not invade the privacy of their customers.
This warrant has opened a can of worms when it comes to privacy issues. While cell phones and computers are devices that are typically seized in an investigation of this type, there is no precedent set for a device that is constantly listening to the surroundings inside a private home. According to the Washington Post, the device harbors seven microphones and it responds when the “wake word” is spoken. The Echo comes with the wake word of Alexa, but some do change the name to something else. When you say “Alexa” the device starts streaming audio to a cloud, where it is stored and time stamped and the only way to delete it is manually. If you asked Alexa a question, you could go in later to find out the exact time the question was received by the Echo.
The police did not divulge what kind of information they are hoping to find if Amazon does happen to comply with their wishes. Although it does appear that their understanding of how the Echo works is not up to par, which is evident by something written within the search warrant. A line in the warrant indicated that the law enforcement members who obtained this warrant believed that the Echo might record “at all times” even without the wake word being said.
A spokesperson for Amazon pointed out that part of the statement within” the warrant didn’t correspond to the way the Echo works. They said while the device is “constantly listening,” it is “not constantly recording.” Unless the wake word is spoken, nothing is streamed or stored by this device.
Amazon won’t release the information requested in the warrant, “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” the company said in a statement. They refuse to comply with the court warrant on giving up the data for this customer’s account. They said, “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course,” according to the New York Daily News. What Amazon did hand over was the purchase information and the account information, but not the data containing the questions the Echo was asked while in Bates’ home.
Now back to the case, which occurred in November of last year. According to the Telegraph, Bates is accused of strangling Collins. The 34-year-old was arrested on first-degree murder charges and he entered the plea of “not guilty” at a hearing in April. He is out on bail and his trial is slated for 2017. Kimberly Weber, who is Bates’ lawyer, is against the state using any information the Echo device might harbor from being used in this case. She cites that this would be an invasion of her client’s privacy.
Another interesting piece to this case was recently revealed. It has to do with the evidence of water and another tech marvel of a very smart meter. The utilities department for the town of Bentonville had some useful information for this case. They reported that the meter in Bates’ home registered 140 gallons of water used between the hours of 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. the same morning that police were called out to the house and found Collins’ body floating in the hot tub.
This is consistent with the amount of water someone would use when spraying off a patio. The department uses the “smart meter” which indicates the amount of electricity or water used on an hour to hour basis. The use of this amount of water in the wee hours of the morning is seen as a bit suspicious. In the previous hours, while Bates had company, no more than 10 gallons of water was used in any given hour.
[Featured Image by Mark Lennihan, File/AP Images]