back to article Alexa, cough up those always-on Echo audio recordings, says double-murder trial judge

A US judge has ordered Amazon to hand over any recordings made by its Echo digital assistant at a house where two women were murdered last year. Prosecutors believe that Alexa running on the Echo may be a key witness in the case against Timothy Verrill, 34, who stands accused of the second-degree murder of Christine Sullivan, …

  1. Youngone Silver badge

    Sounds about right

    If the rozzers get a court order I have no problem with any recordings being handed over.

    That's due process I think.

    I wouldn't have one of those things in my house irregardless.

  2. Eddy Ito Silver badge
    Coat

    Re: Sounds about right

    I wouldn't have one of those things in my house irregardless.

    I think you mean "disirregardlessly".

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: I think you mean "disirregardlessly".

    Since that might wake "Siri" up, my guess is that maybe not :-)

  4. Commswonk Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    If the rozzers get a court order I have no problem with any recordings being handed over.

    You and I might think that, but of course as one of the "tech giants" Amazon has to preserve and protect its status of being above the reach of the law.

  5. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    You do not.

    Amazon does - because it is refusing to say exactly how much is being recorded (the same goes for the other "AI assistant" players by the way).

    Once the recordings are presented we will know.

  6. tfewster Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Re: Sounds about right

    > Once the recordings are presented we will know.

    I predict that what Amazon releases will be consistent with their official line.

  7. 's water music Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Re: Sounds about right

    I wouldn't have one of those things in my house irregardless.

    I think you mean "disirregardlessly".

    Well acsherly, it's another one of those linguistic oddities like flammable/inflammable. Irregardless and disirregardless both have the exact same meaning

  8. JohnFen Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    "disirregardlessly"? That's an awesome word. I'm going to start working it into my conversations at every opportunity now. Thanks!

  9. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    "Once the recordings are presented we will know."

    That's my biggest problem with Alexa and it's ilk. Why are these companies keeping those recordings for so long and why is it still linked to the account? I know they say it's for improving the quality of the speech recognition and the responses, but why keep the actual recording and the link to the device/owner, not to mention the device IDs of connected devices. This strikes me as keeping data "because they can" rather than an actual need.

  10. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    The issue that you and many miss...

    When a judge gives a court order, Amazon can't refuse. They can fight a subpoena, but not a court order.

    Failure to respond means contempt of court which Amazon doesn't want to do. (No one wants to do)

    But from the article:

    However, Amazon finally handed over the recordings after Bates gave permission. The recordings didn't provide anything useful however and may even have helped Bates' case that there was several reasonable explanations for what may have happened. The charges against him were dropped in November 2017.

    The common thought is that Alexa doesn't record until the command word <Alexa> is said.

    So its important to know what was in the recordings. Was it a command/question to Alexa, or did it contain background noise?

    Meaning the recordings would indicate just how much information Amazon collects from you, assuming you own an Alexa.

    That's what we need to learn...

  11. David 132 Silver badge
    Happy

    Re: Sounds about right

    Well acsherly, it's another one of those linguistic oddities like flammable/inflammable. Irregardless and disirregardless both have the exact same meaning

    I know, right? Which is why I always use “unregardless”, to avoid ambiguity & confusion. The ‘T’ in it is silent, by the way.

  12. eldakka Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    When a judge gives a court order, Amazon can't refuse. They can fight a subpoena, but not a court order.

    Of course you can fight a court order, it's called lodging an appeal. That's what courts of appeals are for.

    The process is usually something along the lines of:

    1) Amazon will lodge an appeal with the appropriate appeals court (e.g. the federal circuit appeals court for the circuit if it's in a federal district court);

    2) Amazon will notify the court who made the order of the appeal, and request a stay of the court order until the appeal can be heard;

    3) if the Judge denies the stay, then Amazon can lodge an emergency appeal with the appeals court over the denial of the stay.

  13. eldakka Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    Amazon does - because it is refusing to say exactly how much is being recorded

    No, Amazon has repeatedly said what is being recorded, it's outlined in various documents on using the device (Ts&Cs etc.).

    What you are saying that you don't believe what Amazon has said. There is a difference.

    Amazon has stated multiple times, and in their documentation that (paraphrased), a correctly working device sends nothing to Amazon until the device is activated with its activation word or by pressing the button on the device itself. The Echo has enough processing power to identify the specific keywords, this is why the allowed list is so short, so it doesn't require much local processing to recognise it. Once it has been activated by the keyword/button press, it transmits a certain amount of following audio (10 seconds I think it is? I forget) to Amazon to then be parsed for the request, and this recording is saved for a certain period of time.

    I personally believe that is how the device works and is intended to function. But I will not have one, because while that might be how Amazon operates now, it's quite possible for them to change how they operate, or to unintentionally introduce a bug that records more than it's supposed to (I think this has happened before? It might not have been Echo, but could have been a competing product), or it could be susceptible to being hacked - whether from criminals or the government. Therefore whether you trust the vendor or not, I think it is ridiculous for anyone to have an always-on mic (or video) sitting in a private place that could be a vector for an un-related, un-trusted body to exploit.

  14. Matthew Taylor

    Re: Sounds about right

    What about "undisirregardlessly"? 'Tis a common word, down our way.

  15. hplasm Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Re: Sounds about right

    "The ‘T’ in it is silent, by the way."

    Well. You learn somethink every day!

  16. hplasm Silver badge
    Headmaster

    Re: Sounds about right

    "What about "undisirregardlessly"? 'Tis a common word, down our way."

    But what is its Cromulency Index?

  17. Jtom Bronze badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    Hopefully, Apple are smart enough to realize if they keep any recording not ‘Alexa-related’ it will eventually destroy the company.

    Companies and governments should have learned by now that if records are kept, there is a high probability that those records will be hacked or leaked. IMO, we have all said something in the privacy of our homes that would destroy us if made public. If Apple is recording more than it should, the day will come that the last question many Echoes will record is, “Alexa, when’s the next trash pick-up?”

  18. PastyFace

    Re: Sounds about right

    Suspect it goes into the algorithm AI training dataset. Question is, why would the original user metadata still be attached at this point?

  19. Youngone Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    Oh Eddie, I was quoting that friend of the common man, George Bush II.

  20. This post has been deleted by its author

  21. jmch Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    "Amazon does - because it is refusing to say exactly how much is being recorded"

    which is insane. The local device should have enough local memory and processing power to be able to buffer and process a few seconds of audio LOCALLY. If it "hears" an activation codeword, then it can record the command and forward it to Amazon or whoever for processing. Having a device that streams the audio direct to Amazon, Google, etc would be meantal.

    However given that these things connect over your own wifi, I am sure that some people have already taken the packets apart and worked out what actually gets sent. Even if (as it should be) the audio stream is encrypted, one should be able to determine if the device is sending / receiving anything without codeword activation.

    Anyone familiar with such a study?

  22. jmch Silver badge

    Re: Sounds about right

    "Amazon has stated multiple times, and in their documentation that (paraphrased), a correctly working device sends nothing to Amazon until the device is activated with its activation word or by pressing the button on the device itself."

    until the device is activated with its activation word or by any random sounds that the device THINKS is its activation word

    Given the imperfect nature of speech recognition, there's going to be either a lot of false positives or a lot of false negatives depending on which way Amazon tunes it. And given that they don't want the device to seem unresponsive it's far more likely that it's tuned towards more false positives. So even if it works exactly as advertised, I bet it's sending much more to Amazon than a user might suspect.

  23. Marty McFly
    Flame

    Abuse of power, as simple as that.

    Law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, etc have NO authority to "ask" Amazon to provide the information. That is a fishing expedition, pure and simple. An arrogant abuse of power by those asking.

    The court, however, can "order" Amazon to provide the information. Amazon can then choose whether to obey or provide a legal challenge to the order. That is how the system is supposed to work.

    Keep this in mind the next time the subject of government back doors in to encryption & communication comes up. These same people who are fishing for evidence would have broad ability to go fishing in to anyone's lives without a legal warrant.

    As for me....the simple solution. No Amazon Echo, Google Home, Smart TV or any other spying device within range of my network.

  24. JohnFen Silver badge

    Re: Abuse of power, as simple as that.

    "Law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, etc have NO authority to "ask" Amazon to provide the information"

    On the contrary. In the US, law enforcement, prosecutors, etc. have the same basic rights as you and I do. That includes the right to ask almost anything of anyone. You can do it, I can do it, and so can cops. If the asker has no legal authority to compel a specific action, of course, the entity being asked is perfectly within their rights to say "no".

    (That said, this sort of thing is one more reason why I would never have any device like this in my home or on my person)

  25. FozzyBear Silver badge
    Flame

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

    Fair enough on the proper legal subpoenas being served. But how can they contest the requirements being overbroad, the scope is not unreasonable. The judge is not asking for all recordings across devices, just that one from the date of the murder to the discovery of the bodies To have then argued against the subpoena on the basis of customer privacy. REALLY!

  26. The Nazz Silver badge

    re Overbroad.

    I agree completely. A very fined tuned and precise order has been made made.

    Without wishing to be too morbid, how much privacy does a dead person buried several feet under a patio require?

    FFS in a civilised society, Amazon should be falling over themselves in their rush to assist the authorities in such circumstances, at their first opportunity.

  27. FuzzyWuzzys Silver badge

    Re: re Overbroad.

    "FFS in a civilised society, Amazon should be falling over themselves in their rush to assist the authorities in such circumstances, at their first opportunity."

    Law is based heavily on precedence, if Amazon don't appear to fight tooth and nail before they handover information, if they don't make it so damned hard that it takes months to get stuff out of them then every Tom, Dick and Harry will demand their recordings for every trivial little thing that Alexa records.

    Amazon cannot simply do what people ask. Today it's something important, like this, evidence in a murder trial. Tomorrow it's because little Johnny and little Jenny won't stop fighting over Smarties and I want those recordings, "You handed them over for a murder trial! They're my recordings about Johnny and Jenny and I want them! You handed them over for that murder thing, why can't I have mine?".

    Then on top of that is the fact that if something is found then details about it have to be published in court documents and that leave Amazon's secrets laid bare for others to copy. If we know more about how Alex tech works then other companies trying to get in on that game stand a better chance or beating Amazon once they know how Amazon's tech works.

  28. eldakka Silver badge

    Fair enough on the proper legal subpoenas being served. But how can they contest the requirements being overbroad, the scope is not unreasonable.

    You are taking the quote from Amazon out of context.

    Amazon, at time of writing, has not been formally served the court order, therefore they are making general statements, not statements specific to this court order.

    They are making the general statement "Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course." Therefore once they have been formally served with the court order, then they will make a determination of whether they think it is overly broad, and then they will act on that determination (hand over the data or lodge an appeal).

  29. JohnFen Silver badge

    Re: re Overbroad.

    "in a civilised society, Amazon should be falling over themselves in their rush to assist the authorities in such circumstances"

    This argument assumes that the government is reasonably sane and just. I don't think that's the case in the US right now, and until/unless it becomes so, I think this argument is a nonstarter.

  30. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    On a one-second buffer ?

    Unless said buffer is sent off to Amazon servers immediately, which effectively transforms the device into an audio streaming device that records everything onto Amazon servers, I really don't see what that thing could possibly have sent to the server that is of any use.

    And if the Echo is effectively recording all sounds 24/7 in your house, then it is by far the most disgusting application of technology ever brought into this world and Big Brother is purple with envy.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: On a one-second buffer ?

    ...I'M GONNA...

    ...NOW I'M G...

  32. MiguelC Silver badge

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    And that is the reason why Amazon has been strenuously fighting off attempts to recover audio sent through Alexa, they really really really don't want you to know how much they know about what you say when you think nobody's listening...

  33. Teiwaz Silver badge

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    And if tit turns out that one second buffer is counting references to Amazon or certain products while it's waiting on the magic word to summon the demon???

  34. Shooter

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    "On a one-second buffer ?"

    If I understand correctly, the one-second is used as Alexa is listening for the "wake word". Once that is detected, longer term recording commences.

    So it continuously records and deletes sounds in one-second increments, until it hears "Alexa"; then it records until the task is completed.

    If you believe Amazon...

  35. Martin Summers Silver badge

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    So what's the murderer going to have said "Alexa play my bludgeoning playlist"? There's not likely going to be any useful recording on there but it's possible. I have an echo dot and I can replay the recordings on my phone in the history, I can hear exactly what it records. Sometimes it records what it thinks was its wake word when in fact it was random stuff. The recordings don't last for long though. I wonder if they've tried getting at the history in the phone of the victim if they had the app.

  36. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge
    Alert

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    Alexa , Help ! help! I'm being abused!

    Alexa, Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

  37. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    "Alexa, how do I conceal a body?"

  38. 's water music Silver badge

    Re: "captured audio of the killings, and subsequent removal of the bodies"

    My goog voice search history includes periodic snatches of radio from the car when it obviously thinks it heard 'ok google', also a couple of amusing searches by one of my kids who has now learned the meaning of search history and which account a devices is associated with but mostly it consists of me swearing at it's failure to correctly interpret my speech

  39. Sureo

    What could be better....

    ... than government snoops (and corporations) having a recording device in everyone's home and office and pocket recording 24 hours a day? We're heading that way.... No cooperation from me though.

  40. Teiwaz Silver badge

    Re: What could be better....

    ... than government snoops (and corporations) having a recording device in everyone's home and office and pocket recording 24 hours a day? We're heading that way.... No cooperation from me though.

    Me neither, but also mainly not all of us have disposable income enough for such mostly useless frivolities.

  41. FuzzyWuzzys Silver badge

    Re: What could be better....

    This is the irony.

    Your government says, "Hey everybody, tell us all about your mundane lives for our spies to keep an eye on you and find the bad guys lurking out there." and everyone loses their minds and we have protests in the streets.

    Facebook asks for the exact same info but says it's for fun and offers cat videos and cartoon farming games and people can't hand over the info fast enough. Amazon offers you the weather and cinema times, once again people are buying these "spying devices" like they're going out of fashion!

    Crazy world!

  42. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    Re: What could be better....

    "Me neither, but also mainly not all of us have disposable income enough for such mostly useless frivolities."

    I have , surprisingly ,given the state of my career , but whats the effing point?

    I dont dim the lights or add a jar of coffee to my shopping list nearly enough to enroll the help of a robot with the comprehension ablilities of Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

  43. LucreLout Silver badge

    Re: What could be better....

    What could be better....

    ... than government snoops (and corporations) having a recording device in everyone's home and office and pocket recording 24 hours a day? We're heading that way.... No cooperation from me though.

    I don't have an Alexa for probably the same reason as 99% of other commentards. However, I do have a mobile phone, which is basically a portable, GPS linked microphone that follows me around. Hmmmm.....

    It's not paranoia if the men in the black helicopters kick the door in and shove your tinfoil hat up your arse!

  44. JohnFen Silver badge

    Re: What could be better....

    ¿Qué?

  45. Jack of Shadows Silver badge

    I can't see any difference between what the Echo does and whatever smartphone, also with wake word, you wander around with these days. Which raises the question, have they attempted to get the data/records for all those cell phones around as well? Bonus points for GPS records.

  46. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

    whatever smartphone, also with wake word, you wander around with these days

    It's easy enough to disable the Android wake-word function. That does appear to prevent any visible reaction to it. Whether it prevents background recording is another question; hard to tell without rooting the phone and hooking some APIs, which is more effort than I'm going to go through right now.

    Devices like the Echo, on the other hand, exist for precisely this purpose. For people who don't want "digital assistants" listening to them all the time, there's no reason to have one of the damned things.

  47. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And we're back again

    Back to the argument that any webcache has an unauthorised downloaded copy.

    Because it's IT and we assume that we know fuck we're talking about because we're in charge

  48. Winkypop Silver badge

    People with these web enabled assistants....

    ...clearly have not read Orwell's 1984.

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: People with these web enabled assistants....

    Long before Google assistent my phone sometimes waked up for no reason untill i one day looked at the phone and saw the mic on the display.

    I finaly find out that it was the sound from the TV set or from a you tube video.

    I still don't know what words that trigger it.

    I take out the battery when i don't want anyone listening.

    I would never buy a phone that i can't remove the battery from

  50. Mark 85 Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Re: People with these web enabled assistants....

    ...clearly have not read Orwell's 1984.

    More likely that most people who have read 1984 believe that what's in the book will never come to pass. After all, it's fiction.... right? right?

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