Dial M for Alexa Mum on Murder

I’ve read more than a few conspiracy theories from people that owning an Alexa/Echo device is silly, because it is always spying on them. That’s simply not true. As someone with a background in computational linguistics (computer science/linguistics), I can vouch that it is terribly inefficient for Amazon to take in the streaming audio from millions and millions of homes parse it to something useful. (Though, Snowden has shown that some similar knowledge can be gathered with his exposure of the NSA).

Thinking of it reminds me of the Buffy the Vampire episode Earshot. Buffy couldn’t detect the signal from all the noise of everyone talking at once. I could argument for many paragraphs about the power of Buffy vs. Amazon’s computational abilities. I’m tempted, but let’s move on.

I’m not a lawyer, so I will quote some of the points from these two articles.

The later article sets the scene of the murder:

“Detectives say they learned that music had been streamed to the back patio at the time of death, which they thought might have been controlled via the Echo’s smart assistant Alexa… Although no recordings are meant to be made [when the wake word isn’t invoked], the device often becomes activated when it misinterprets speech as being its wake command. Any captured audio might therefore have identified who was active in the early hours of the morning when the alleged murder is thought to have taken place, as well as what was said. Mr Bates claims to have been asleep at the time.”

As of this writing, I’ve had two years of experience with an Amazon Echo. (It got it Christmas 2014.) It is extremely, extremely rare that Alexa misinterprets speech as its wake command. In fact, it’s never happened with my or my family talking. It has happened about 8-12 times from television. The “awake” stay open for about 15 seconds and then realizes its mistake and shuts down. If my experience is typical, the categorization above by the BBC of “often” is best replaced with “extremely rarely” or “almost never.”

It’s a long shot to look hope that the 15 second window happened to occur a 2-month span. However, playing Devil’s Advocate, the prosecution could make an argument that the victim’s last words might have been, “Alexa, Buffy Summers is killing me!” (Or something more accurate to the non-vampire situation.)

I loved Amazon’s response:

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.

It feels to me that there should be a neutral 3rd party, such as the judge, who can review limited Alexa data in conjunction with the timing of the murder. The judge should, of course, be under NDA about any and all information not directly related to the case. I believe this strikes a balance of privacy and justice.

And while it wasn’t quoted verbatim, Amazon’s spokesperson also stated:

“He added that utterances are not stored by Echo devices, and the associated audio is only accessible via the cloud and can be deleted by the relevant account holder.”

This is important. The physical Amazon Echo device has no information stored on it. That’s not a surprise as “tear-downs” of the devices showed that they didn’t have storage. It also is an answer to an uninformed police as noted previously in the article, “However, the police said a detective found a way to extract data from the device itself.” It appears that the detective would be mistaken, because that simply isn’t possible as no data is stored on the device.

The aforementioned LA Times article brought about an interesting question:

“Namely, is there a difference in the reasonable expectation of privacy one should have when dealing with a device that is ‘always on’ in one’s own home?”

Simply stated, the answer to this question is an open and closed case of, “No!” From a reasonable expectation of privacy perspective, the “always on” aspect of a device listening for a “wake” word, is no more “always on” than a tablet waiting for someone to activate it. As noted above, Amazon is not recording information at other times. There would be no reasonable expectation that something that never occurs to somehow occur, especially when someone wouldn’t expect it to occur. (That was a strange sentence… sorry.)

I think it’s fitting to conclude with this thought:

“[James A. Bates] defense attorney, Kimberly Weber, told the Information she was alarmed by the police request of Amazon, which she viewed as an invasion of her client’s privacy. ‘You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us.””

I completely agree. When I choose to use technology, it is to advance my quality of life. It isn’t an acknowledgement of giving up my right to privacy. Some technology advances (not necessary Alexa) have become important to living in the modern world. It’s difficult to draw the line and suggest than when I talk to a device in my own home, I don’t have an expectation of privacy to that. I’m not broadcasting my words to a public audience and hence it is private.

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