Is Amazon Echo Recording Me?

by | Dec 7, 2018 | Criminal Defense, Technology and the Law |

Recently, a lot of people are asking, “Is Amazon Echo recording me?”

Amazon’s official response is that the device is listening, but it only begins recording when it hears the wake-up command, “Alexa.” Despite this, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the device is recording audio…

There is the couple in Oregon whose private conversation was recorded by the Echo device and then emailed to one of the husband’s contacts. Also, in at least two murder cases, prosecutors have sought audio recordings from Amazon that would become evidence in the cases.

And what about your smartphone? Like the Amazon Echo, your smartphone may begin recording audio when it hears a wake-up command like “Ok Google.” Or is it recording you all the time?

All these devices are a new frontier of sorts in the courtroom – can you get relevant recordings from Amazon or Google and are they admissible in court?

Big Brother is Watching… Or is He?

I used to joke about how it was just a matter of time before the government put recording devices in every home. As it turns out, corporations have just about achieved that goal.

We trust big corporations, right? It’s not like they are subject to the government or their devices are subject to hacking by governments?

Paranoia? Remember, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you…

Amazon Echo Becomes a Witness in a Murder Prosecution

Alexa, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Last month, a judge in New Hampshire ordered Amazon to turn over recordings that may have recorded audio of a double murder in the victims’ home:

The court finds there is probable cause to believe the server[s] and/or records maintained for or by Amazon.com contain recordings made by the Echo smart speaker from the period of January 27, 2017 to January 29, 2017, and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen” during that period, Judge Houran wrote. 

Judge Steven M Houran wrote in the court order that an Echo device present in the home may have captured audio that could provide key evidence in the case.

The Court also ordered Amazon to disclose information about any cellphones that may have paired with the device during the time period of the alleged murder:

He then ordered Amazon to “produce forthwith to the court any recordings made by an Echo smart speaker with Alexa voice command capability”, as well as “any information identifying cellular devices that were paired to that speaker during that time period.”

It’s interesting that the potential evidence sought by prosecutors in the case includes not only the audio recorded by the Echo device but also information on cell phones that paired with the device – is it possible the defendant’s cell phone automatically paired with the device while he was in the home?

Will the prosecution seek similar recordings from the victims’ cell phones when they were paired with the Echo device? Is that possible?

Does Amazon Turn Over Audio Recordings When Police Ask for Them?

According to the media reports, Amazon is refusing to turn over any data without a valid court order or the consent of the device’s owner.

In another murder prosecution in Arkansas, prosecutors sought audio recordings from the defendant’s home which they believed would contain audio of the defendant murdering his friend who was found dead in the defendant’s hot tub (with a .32 blood alcohol content).

To their credit, the company refused to provide the audio recordings and went to court on a motion to quash the prosecution’s search warrant:

“Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials,” Amazon’s lawyers wrote in a February memo seeking to quash Smith’s request for a search warrant.

When the defendant consented to allow Amazon to release the recordings, however, Amazon turned them over. It turns out, in this case, that the recordings showed that there was no murder, and the case was dismissed.

So, Is Amazon Echo Recording Me or Not?

The company insists that, although the device is always listening to you, it only records when it hears the wake-up command, “Alexa.”

The company says that, in the case of the Oregon couple, the following must have happened:

  • As the couple was talking, the Echo device must have heard a word similar to “Alexa;”
  • The device later must have heard the phrase “send message;”
  • Then the device heard the name of the contact to whom it sent the recorded conversation; and
  • During this process, the Echo device responded with questions to the couple, but they just didn’t hear it…

Sound likely?

How do you suppose the audio recordings began in the murder cases? “Alexa, wake up. I’m about to kill someone?”

Or, maybe the killer wanted to hear a certain type of music… “Alexa, play Slayer,” which triggered the audio recording?

How Can I Get Copies of Amazon Echo’s Recordings?

The company claims that all recordings are accessible in the Alexa app:

  • Open the Alexa app on your smartphone.
  • Tap the menu button on the top-left side of the screen.
  • Scroll down and select ‘Settings.’
  • Scroll down the page and tap ‘History.’

You should see a list of all commands that you’ve given Alexa and any audio recordings – you can then delete those recordings if you want.

Other Types of Technology Appearing as Witnesses in Court

New technologies will inevitably find their way into the courtrooms – email, text messages, photographs, video, and audio recordings are now routinely used as evidence in criminal prosecutions and civil trials.

Cell tower data and GPS location data from cell phones have been used in courtrooms for years.

Fitbits are relatively new to courtrooms and are making appearances across the country:

Last but not least, is your cell phone listening to you all the time?

Although I’m not aware of any court cases where recordings have been produced, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that your cell phone is listening and the data it collects from your conversations is then used for targeted advertising.

Don’t believe it? Test it yourself. Talk about a random topic for a few days near your cell phone – socks, shoes, beards, whatever. Then look at the ads that are presented to you on Facebook…

SC Criminal Defense Lawyers in Myrtle Beach

Is Amazon Echo recording me?

If it is, the recordings may be valuable evidence in your case – technology like Amazon Echo, smartphones, or Fitbit data should not be overlooked and could make the difference in court.

If you have been arrested or need legal help in Myrtle Beach, SC, call the attorneys at Coastal Law now at (843) 488-5000 or get in touch through our website to speak with a Myrtle Beach attorney today.

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