Police in Arkansas are looking for answers in the murder of a young man in Bentonville and are now turning to defendant James Bates’ Amazon Echo for information. The Amazon Echo is an AI software which is “always on” and ready to answer user questions when need be. The Information first reported on the case, after police issued a warrant to Amazon, requesting that any saved recordings from Bates’ Echo be released. Amazon thus far has declined to release any recordings from the Echo itself without a fully legally binding request, citing customer privacy and saying they would not respond to “overbroad or otherwise inappropriate” demands. Police insist that the Echo may contain recordings that could provide further evidence in the case, and were able to extract some data from it, however, they are hoping to get transcripts and audio recordings from it as well.
So far, according to the statement released by police, Amazon has refused to comply with two search warrants issued, both sent in December of 2015. Police also acquired an LG phone belonging to the victim, and a Hauwai Nexus phone belonging to the defendant. Police were originally unable to access both phones due to their passcode locks. The issue is reminiscent of the conflict between Apple and the FBI following the San Bernadino shootings when federal investigators demanded access to the shooters iPhone from Apple. Police were able to unencrypt the phone themselves in that case. After police managed to break into the phone themselves, they dropped their request to Apple. In February, a Brooklyn judge (on another case) ruled that investigators cannot force companies to hand over ways to access information on encrypted devices. However, in a more recent case, a Florida judge ruled that users can be compelled to released information about their phone (in that specific case, a four-digit passcode).
The newest warrant was filed in August, and demands Amazon comply with releasing the information within sixty (60) days. The warrant also says there is an imminent danger of the information being destroyed or deleted. It remains to be seen if Amazon complied with this request, and new information about the case has not yet been released. In addition to the cell phones and the Amazon Echo, police also investigated other “smart” devices in the home, including a water meter indicating many gallons of water were used around the time the murder took place, which police argue may indicate an attempt to clean up the scene. Police were able to extra some data from the Amazon Echo which indicates that during the murder, music had been played through the Echo to the back porch where the victim was later found.
James Bates’ pleaded not guilty and was released on bond earlier in 2016. The new information regarding the case has put it under a national spotlight and refueled the debate over “smart” devices, privacy, and the ongoing conflict between tech giants and law enforcement.
What do you think about tech based cases like these? Should companies have to supply information to law enforcement during criminal cases, or should customer privacy come first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!