back to article US cops seek Amazon Echo data for murder inquiry

Amazon has resisted a warrant to release information to US police seeking data from its Echo device, in order to gather evidence on a murder investigation. The device is owned by James Andrew Bates from Arkansas, who is accused of strangling his friend Victor Collins, who was found dead in a bath at the suspect’s home in …

  1. Old Handle
    Meh

    Interesting...

    Good on them for not making it too easy I guess... unless they're only resisting because it would reveal the device really does record you at all times in they released the data.

    1. TaabuTheCat

      Re: Interesting...

      More interesting would have been Amazon saying there was simply nothing to produce. Telling that they are using legal weasel words instead, clearly aimed at placating customer concerns about privacy and keeping Echo sales strong.

      A microphone in every room, listening 24x7, all connected to a service you don't control. What could possibly go wrong?

      1. King Jack
        Trollface

        Re: Interesting...

        Ms May has just had an orgasm. New law for 2017: An Echo in every home (except MPs and chums).

        1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

          Re: Interesting...

          Ms May has just had an orgasm

          Probably the first for a long, long time...

        2. Fatman Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: Interesting...

          <quote>Ms May has just had an orgasm.</quote>

          Are you sure she CAN have one???

      2. Brian Miller

        Re: Interesting...

        A microphone in every room, listening 24x7, all connected to a service you don't control. What could possibly go wrong?

        You mean like the typical cell phone, which is switched on, has an active microphone, and is within voice distance of the typical user?

        "OK, Google..." or "Hey, Siri..." is normal, but "Alexa ..." is strange? Anything that has a microphone on it and a network connection is a possible spy in your home. The Echo made news simply because this is the fist time that the cops think that it may contain relevant information. I would love for Amazon to say, "here you go, no problem," with a big fat blank sheet of paper, because the device really doesn't have anything on it. Like everything that's spoken in the range of its microphone.

      3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Big Brother

        "A microphone in every room, listening 24x7, all connected to a service you don't control. "

        But wait till you see their new streaming video system. Something like this

        In theory echo should delete everything it hears between commands (it's not a command) and at most log when and what command was requested.

        In practice??

        And best of all you pay for your own surveillance.

        1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

          Re: In theory echo should delete everything it hears between commands

          Software writers like to have live data available for the purposes of -uh- bug fixing.

      4. TimB

        Re: Interesting...

        "More interesting would have been Amazon saying there was simply nothing to produce. Telling that they are using legal weasel words instead"

        That doesn't really raise any red flags for me. I'd probably be more concerned if they did simply say there's nothing to provide - that would mean they at least got as far as looking. In a company the size of Amazon, there should be no reason for the legal guys to have access to Alexa data, and whether or not the data exists shouldn't have any bearing on their response. So at this time, it looks to me like they're doing the right thing.

        The fun part will be if they get dragged through the courts, ordered to release the data anyway, and *then* turn round and say "Sorry...nothing there"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Interesting...

      It is always listening, or it wouldn't hear the wake up command.

      My guess is it is always recording too.

      Pretty creepy.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Interesting...

        not quite as creepy as strangling someone to death...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Interesting...

          Nope, not as creepy as that. But IF everything in your home is being recorded, there are laws in the US that prohibit that sort of thing without permission of the recorded parties. That could throw a wrench in the works if a court rules those recordings -if they exist - as inadmissable.

          1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

            Re: Interesting...

            Not admissable?

            Did you read para 475645406644.99550 of the EULA?

            You know the one where is gives Amazon all rights to everything it records for the next 1000 years.

            Just send it to the recycling centre. Perhaps some other sucker will want the bug.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Interesting...

              "Did you read para 475645406644.99550 of the EULA?"

              I thought that was just handing over my first-born, who I'm not that crazy about anyway.

          2. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Interesting...

            The audio recording laws are worded so that it is legal if ONE of the parties knows that a recording is being made. They were crafted to make wiretapping illegal.

            1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

              Re: Interesting...

              The audio recording laws are worded so...

              Here - yes. USA - no. Half of the states have laws which make recording illegal unless both parties consent to it.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Interesting... From the pre Internet days

                Both parties must know led to an interesting legal case a couple of decades ago. A manager had hidden a tape recorder before confronting an employee about stealing something, The employee murdered him. So was the tape inadmissible in court because it was illegally obtained? I never heard the resolution to that one.

                It sounds like a similar issue here if the crime occurred in a "both parties must know" state.

              2. auburnman

                Re: Interesting...

                But the existing audio recording laws relate to transmitted conversations between one or more parties. I doubt there's legal precedent for an always on audio recording device - known to be present, i.e. not a bug - that stores audio at a remote location.

            2. eldakka Silver badge

              Re: Interesting...

              That depends on the jurisdiction.

              In some states/countries two party (i.e. all parties involved) consent is required. In others 1 is sufficient.

            3. PNGuinn
              FAIL

              Re: Interesting... Re wiretapping.

              So, the feds haven't tried to claim in court yet that a tapped conversation is a 3 way / conference call, and THEY knew that THEY were listening so it's all ok?

              Shame on them.

            4. NatalieEGH

              Re: Interesting...

              1. Not all areas allow only 1 party knowing recordings are being made. In the state of Illinois in the United States of America, the law requires both parties be informed recordings are being made.

              2. That said, probably there is a statement in the EULA to the effect that the device is always on and listening (not that it takes a lot of brains to realize that if it turns "on" and "off" with a voice command). By agreeing to the EULA the users, from a legal standpoint, may be giving full rights to the device listening at all times and to the remote party being allowed to use any and all data received in any manner they choose including selling it to others, recording, data mining, and possibly even use in criminal investigations.

              3. For myself, I have only 3 things that can track any of my activity and I know when they are on and when they are off. My microphone for my computer (I plug it in when I am using it, and unplug when not using it), my GPS in my car, my GPS for my motorcycle. My GPS can stay home if I want no one to be able to track. I do not use a cell phone. My car predates all the fancy electronic stuff like On-Star and a EPU.

              4. While I do not trust of the government to keep its nose where it belongs, I have absolutely no trust of big business. I consider them liars, manipulators, and greedy far beyond Midas or Avarice. Most of my distrust of government is because government employees and elected officials can be swayed by the bribes of big business. No, I choose to keep my personal business out of their hands.

          3. Kimo

            Re: Interesting...

            Arkansas has single party consent for recording. So conversations including the homeowner could be recorded, but conversations where the homeowner is not present would be a violation unless one of the other parties agreed.

        2. pauleverett

          Re: Interesting...

          yea, just as creepy , cos if the thing was real smart it would have/could have/should have...called the cops Rather than just to take your orders, the thing would actually have a real purpose to exist, right there...

          1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: Interesting...

            @pauleverett - would it be smart enough not to call the cops if it hears a TV show, or one of those dinner party murder mystery games?

            "Amazon Echo here - Reporting a conspiracy to steal plans for a top secret military project called 'the Death Star'."

          2. PNGuinn
            Joke

            Re: Interesting... @paulverett

            "cos if the thing was real smart it would have/could have/should have...called the cops"

            Only if you could and did change the "safe word" to ERUGSGHHSSHH...

      2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Interesting...

        So all your lovely data goes to perhaps the most agressive retailer on the planet.

        And people pay money to get this spy in their homes?

        Bonkers, totally bonkers.

        Much like the guy on the Radio today who said that tracking you inside a store using your phone was just to get footfall figures. People believe that?

        Send in the men in the white coats. You need to be put somewhere nice and quiet.

      3. d3vy Silver badge

        Re: Interesting...

        "My guess is it is always recording too."

        That might be your guess but my understanding is that you would be wrong.

        The device listens for a wake word and then streams audio to an Amazon server for voice recognition etc.

        You can log in at any time and see a record of the requests that Amazon have received from your device, afaik it only stores the text output of the voice recognition (I am not sure if this is the case as it would make sense to store at least some of the audio for testing/improving the system - appropriately anonymised ideally)

        One of the other pieces of evidence that they have put forward (according to *i think* the guardian) was the guys smart water meter that showed he used a significant amount of water at around 3am... They are suggesting that this was to wash blood from the patio (no mention of strangulation in that article)...

        Amazon are completely right to resist this, I can see it turning into another massive waste of time and money... At the end of this best case is they are hoping for a few false positive activations in the minutes leading up to the death having caught something incriminating...

        "Amazon, play my 'strangling Jeff' play list"

        1. Donn Bly

          Re: afaik it only stores the text output

          Both the recorded sound clip and the translated text are stored, that way when Amazon doesn't translate something you added to your shopping or to-do list properly you can play it back to hear what you actually said.

          However, it does NOT stream real-time recording to the cloud - as I verified myself using wireshark after I purchased my first echo. It has a limited processor that is hardcoded to listen for "amazon" or "alexa" (user configurable) and then it records from that point to the first quiet period and THEN sends up that small clip in a burst up for processing.

          I'm sure that if a PROPERLY EXECUTED search warrant is issued Amazon will be willing to comply and deliver up the data - as they have already delivered the account information requested. However, as evidenced by the filing the police are clueless as to what the Echo does. They already have the perp's Amazon account information so they could log in and play back the clips themselves. They really don't need anything else from Amazon other than to hold the data pending future prosecution. The current search warrant asks for information that either doesn't exist or they already have.

          Until that properly executed search warrant is issued Amazon has a fiduciary responsibility to reject it and hold them to account. Not only does it protect Amazon and their customers, it protects the police against themselves even if they don't realize it.

        2. P. Lee Silver badge

          Re: Interesting...

          I think you're right. However, staking my privacy on the size of the buffer is not "secure by design." I wouldn't have one.

          Of far more concern is the <INSERT COP SHOW NAME HERE> idea that if the police tell you its serious, its ok to break protocol. Protocol is specifically designed to ensure that that everyone does the right thing when emotions or other influences might be clouding the issue. If its serious, I'd suggest the police should stop acting like cowboys and do their job properly, so that Amazon and I are protected from the fallout from helping them. Why do the police keep doing this? Surely they know they are going to be rebuffed. Its so stupid and happens so often it seems more like a war of attrition, hoping that some day Amazon will break.

          I doubt they are looking for voice data on whether Jeff ordered rope, quick-lime and concrete, though it is reasonable for the police to ask for data which may help them, even if its unlikely.

          More likely, they aren't after Jeff's voice at all: "Amazon, Jeff stabbed me. Buy 2000 grand piano's on his credit card and have them delivered. Also, two cakes; one saying, 'I know what you did' and the other saying 'I'll be back.'"

          It will be interesting to know what happens to the voice recordings in the long run.

          1. moiety

            Re: Interesting...

            the guys smart water meter that showed he used a significant amount of water at around 3am... They are suggesting that this was to wash blood from the patio

            Tsk. Why didn't he just sloosh some water from the hot tub? Didn't even have to get out. I dunno. Youth today, no idea...

          2. auburnman

            Re: Interesting...

            "Why do the police keep doing this?"

            Because it's only news when they are refused; "Okay officer, come in and grab a coffee while we pull that up for you" probably happens thousands of times a day.

            As a side note if the police need a warrant for the information and get the data without one, then it would be illegally obtained and inadmissible in court.

      4. GrumpyOldMan

        Re: Interesting...

        Said this when they very first came out. Its the Samsung Smart TV saga all over again. A set of mics in your home on 24/7?

      5. Matt Bryant Silver badge
        Alert

        Re: Etatdame Re: Interesting...

        "It is always listening..... My guess is it is always recording too....." From a security viewpoint, I'm more worried that the device could be hacked (or the connection to the Amazon servers diverted) to send what it hears to an eavesdropper. It doesn't matter what volume of recordings it stores locally if it can stream it out to a listener over your WiFi router's connection, you'd be effectively paying to install a bugging device in your home.

      6. Pat Harkin

        Re: Interesting...

        "My guess is it is always recording too."

        Won't that just kill their storage - every one of their devices recording audio 24/7? Should be fairly easy to spot though, just look at your network traffic before/after turning the radio on.

    3. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Interesting...

      If I had to put money on it, I'd say they are already collecting all this data and if they're forced to admit it in court will probably claim they are mining it "anonymously" and think that makes it OK.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Interesting...

      Also interesting, the guy had a nexus6p with device encryption, and they couldn't get into it..

      Of course, the apple spin machine is not at work on this one, so that is just a footnote in the article, not a 2 month media circus aimed at telling the world their phones are uncrackable, and every terrorist and drug dealer should own one....

    5. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
      Boffin

      @Old Handle ... Re: Interesting...

      There really isn't any reason for Amazon to not honor the subpoena.

      They are arguing that the subpoena is overly broad.

      It is not.

      They are limiting their request to this single unit and anything that it may have recorded.

      The courts will eventually side with the police on this one.

      The interesting thing is that the police are not sure of how Echo works and what information was recorded and sent back to Amazon.

      If the echo unit sends everything back to Amazon regardless of key word... Amazon would be in a lot of trouble in a couple of states.

      So time would tell.

  2. joea

    And a search warrant is not "a valid and binding legal demand" . . . why?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Well, it's not binding to Amazon's intetests to not jave a gag prder on the police so they don't reveal it records way more than it should.

      The police should comically request the data from the NSA, after all that's the purpose of this device for the NSA, that is it's 1 piece of the larger puzzle to spy on everyone everywhere illegally without ethics.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @myBackDoor

        Say it with me "alexa, order me a new tin foil hat"

      2. PNGuinn
        Coat

        jave a gag prder

        That's probably a serious offence or 3 on it's own - especially with your handle, Mr MyBackDoor.

    2. Suricou Raven

      That depends upon the warrant. It sounds like Amazon is challenging the validity of the warrant, which might mean it was hastily-applied-for, or just a blatant fishing expedition on a suspect. Not at all an uncommon thing to happen. If that is the case, chances are it'll be resolved in a couple of days once the police submit a new warrant with more precise wording.

    3. W4YBO

      "And a search warrant is not "a valid and binding legal demand" . . . why?"

      From the article...

      "It is believed that these records are retained by Amazon.com and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.”

      The final clause of the Fourth Amendment...

      "and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

      Keeps the authorities from guessing at what incriminating evidence you might have.

  3. DubyaG

    Probable Cause

    Sounds like the investigatory powers that be have probable cause to serve a warrant on Google. A murder allegedly took place and a possible recording device was present. Since the device was the property of the victim, it seems appropriate for Google to submit what it has. If it was the property of the alleged perpetrator, it would get more complicated. The Alexa is like the surveillance cameras the the police go after when canvassing the crime scenes.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Probable Cause

      Google? Nah, this is Amazon and their recording. God knows what Google has.

      1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
        Angel

        I'm only a messenger...

        https://madeby.google.com/home/

        He says hello, and He purchases neither from Amazon or Google, wifi signal not too great up there you see...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Probable Cause

        Google? Nah, this is Amazon and their recording

        But otherwise the OP made a good point. The privacy fundamentalists seem to ignore that a murder has taken place, and it is possible (even if unlikely) that the Alexa device may have recorded critical information.

        In the scenario where somebody was murdered, and the cops wanted data off the victim's phone to investigate the case, would these same people be standing up complaining that it breached the victim's privacy (and potentially that of the murderer)?

    2. d3vy Silver badge

      Re: Probable Cause

      @dubya

      "If it was the property of the alleged perpetrator, it would get more complicated"

      RTFA

      The device WAS/IS owned by the accused not the victim.

  4. NotBob
    Big Brother

    I want to support Amazon, but can we really say they are doing the Right Thing® if it's only to cover up for all the shady spying for advertising they are doing?

    Seems we have more Big Brothers watching than I want to think about...

  5. Kaltern

    I imagine Google's similar device will also not be recording every murder committed in home either.

    In fact, it won't be long before these devices are suddenly to be used in every possible terrorism threat the authorities can make up.

    Kind of reminds me of CtOS...

    1. elDog Silver badge

      Just say "aWake! Erase!"

      And all of the material recorded within the device will immediately be uploaded to the mothership for safe-keeping, and the bits still stored on the device will be locked with a cryptolocker (need amazoncoins).

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Smart water meter data as evidence

    What the article doesn't mention is that the police believe they have incriminating evidence from the house's (presumably smart) water meter. It showed 140 gallons being used at about the time of the alleged crime. The suggestion is that the alleged murderer hosed down the area to remove blood stains.

    1. Red Bren
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

      What the article does mention is the victim was strangled. Can you cite a source for the 140 gallons of water and why it was needed after a bloodless murder?

      1. d3vy Silver badge

        Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

        @red

        It's in the guardian

        https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/28/amazon-refuses-to-let-police-access-suspects-echo-recordings

        Last paragraph

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

          @red

          The BBC report mentions blood specifically.

          http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38450658

      2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

        The water was needed to wash away the blood etc from the dissection of the dead body.

        The severed parts were put into plastic sacks for which there is a receipt from a local store as evidence.

        These sacks were loaded into the back of the accused's car and disposed of.

        The Police have CCTV of the car at a filling station that shows that the back of the vehicle was clearly sitting lower on the suspension than the front.

        We retrieved those plastic bags and found the accused's DNA and finger prints on the bags.

        I rest my case for the prosecution M'Lord.

        1. Wensleydale Cheese Silver badge

          Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

          "The Police have CCTV of the car at a filling station that shows that the back of the vehicle was clearly sitting lower on the suspension than the front."

          Really? With the weight of one human?

          Filling station CCTVs aren't usually very high definition.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

            with the average weight of American humans...

            I'm not sure why you would be surprised...

      3. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

        Can you cite a source for the 140 gallons of water and why it was needed after a bloodless murder?

        People nearly always empty their bowels when strangled (this is the bit which books and movies usually get wrong when describing hanging).

        You have to refill that hottub ya know after the victim has shat it in. It is the right volume for a mid-size one ~ 500l. So while the police was correct to link the water meter records to the crime, their lab was rather clueless on the exact reason.

        1. JohnMurray

          Re: Smart water meter data as evidence

          People always empty both bowel and bladder when they die.

  7. Tikimon Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Dystopian future on the way?

    Here we are today. Some homes have Echo or a similar always-listening device. The cops realize that these Big Brother Telescreens are an awesome way to monitor us in our previously-warrant-protected homes. How long until we're REQUIRED to have them?

    They will get pushed on us like "smart meters", so the home can more efficiently use electricity, save money, save the environment etc. Or to listen for possible child abuse or someone watching kiddie porn online... think of the children, yanno.

    Technology is always abused, and frequently turned against its owners. Not what we were promised.

    1. Ogi

      Re: Dystopian future on the way?

      > Not what we were promised.

      With all due respect, nobody promised you anything. Unless you count what marketing tells you as a "promise", in which case I've got a bridge to sell you.

      Technology is a tool, it can enslave, or it can liberate, which way it goes very much depends on who has control of the tool.

      This is why centralisation is so dangerous. A distributed system would be much harder for any one entity to control (current example: Bitcoin), whereas a cloud based solution like this (where one company has control) the power is concentrated, and can be abused.

      If this Amazon Echo thingy had local processing, and local storage, and was only connected to the local network, that would a very liberating tool because it (and the data) is under your control, as a sovereign entity.

      However that isn't how it is designed (obviously, more money to be made if everything is under the companies control), so here we are.

      Now some may argue that if it helps solve a murder, it is a great future and we should have more of it, however I don't think having everything and everyone recorded, monitored and tracked "just in case" a crime is committed is a good idea. If that is what someone wants, they can go live in a prison.

      1. veti Silver badge

        Re: Dystopian future on the way?

        "If that is what someone wants, they can go live in a prison" - seriously, is that an option? Where I come from it's quite hard to get in to those places, at least not without doing something quite distasteful. Their bouncers are harsh.

      2. d3vy Silver badge

        Re: Dystopian future on the way?

        @ogi

        if echo had local storage and enough processing grunt to do speech recognition it would cost considerably more.

        If it only had access to your local network it would be next to useless.. Well other than a voice controlled remote..

        Me "Alexa, what's the weather like tomorrow?"

        Echo : "Your guess is as good as mine"

        Me : "Alexa, order me some more printer ink and paper"

        Echo : "I'm sorry Dave I can't do that"

      3. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

        Re: Dystopian future on the way?

        IIRC, I was promised electricity "too cheap to meter", a two-day workweek, a jetpack, and weekends on the moon.

      4. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dystopian future on the way?

      > "Technology is always abused, and frequently turned against its owners."

      That was certainly true of flaked stones and fire. Didn't stop anybody tho.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Alexa

    Alexa .... play my Stranglers playlist.

    1. Steve Aubrey

      Re: Alexa

      Which would, presumably, include Frank Zappa's "The torture never stops", from 1976's Zoot Allures.

      And what was I doing back then, that I should even *know* about the song??

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Alexa

        "And what was I doing back then, that I should even *know* about the song??"

        Signs of a mis-spent youth?

    2. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Alexa

      "Alexa, start with 'Death and Night And Blood.'"

    3. Kiwi Silver badge
      Gimp

      Re: Alexa

      Start with Motorhead's "Sweet Revenge".

      Icon for those who have other views on strangulation...

  9. DrD'eath

    Next Tory Christmas present

    If they had the investigatory powers act

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investigatory_Powers_Act_2016

    They would not have to go through the tedious legal system.

    I predict that next year Thersa May will give everyone an Amazon echo for Christmas.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Next Tory Christmas present

      Big Sister is Listening to you.

      1. JohnMurray

        Re: Next Tory Christmas present

        Big Shitster.....

  10. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Police: Your other devices tell us who murdered who and how...

    ...so give us the information.

    Amazon: Pardon?

    Police: Yeah, all these Agatha Christie's you've got on the Kindle, for starters...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Police: Your other devices tell us who murdered who and how...

      Your Amazon past shopping items - either bought or browsed - can probably be cherry-picked to justify just about any suspicion.

      1. Morten_T
        Happy

        Re: Police: Your other devices tell us who murdered who and how...

        Obligatory xkcd: https://xkcd.com/576/

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: Police: Your other devices tell us who murdered who and how...

      So that's why Amazon is resisting: the cops are asking them to facilitate wholesale copyright infringement. It all makes sense now.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Really??

    Can the FBI paya third party for an Amazon hack? Or maybe their NSA buddies can help with that?

    1. Hans 1 Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Really??

      >Or maybe their NSA buddies can help with that?

      NSA have the data and have provided it to the FBI already, however, FBI need to obtain data legally ....

  12. ma1010 Silver badge
    Holmes

    Not their call

    If the warrant is "over broad," Amazon can appeal that in court. You can't just decide "oh, no, I don't want to play" when you get a warrant. If there is something wrong with the warrant (which I'm not able to judge), then I hope Amazon pursues that avenue and wins.

    On the other hand, If Amazon wants to refuse because they don't want everyone knowing that they're eavesdropping and recording everything said in an Alexa-equipped house, then I wouldn't mind seeing Jeff Bezos in jail on contempt charges. It rarely happens, but there are precedents for that sort of thing for corporations that think they're above the law.

    It would be nice to know just how much those voice-activated gadgets "listen" to regular conversations. I want to know if they are sending data out of the household, and if so, just who is collecting that data and why. I suspect most El Reg readers are savvy enough to not want a voice-activated device in their house without knowing that much about it.

    1. Oengus Silver badge

      Re: Not their call

      I suspect most El Reg readers are savvy enough to not want a voice-activated device in their house without knowing that much about it.

      I suspect El Reg readers would be tech savvy enough to know that such devices had an off switch and would use it appropriately.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not their call

        "such devices had an off switch"

        Well, those don't always work how you think they would. A lot of devices are always powered on.

        1. TechnicalBen Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: Not their call

          Here in the UK the off switch is on the wall. ;)

          Though I've a great idea for modding this thing if I ever get one... oh and by that I don't mean just with a hammer! :D

          1. d3vy Silver badge

            Re: Not their call

            "Here in the UK the off switch is on the wall."

            Get some smart sockets and you can ask alexa to switch itself off... Or declare "I cannot self terminate, you must do it"

        2. Kiwi Silver badge
          Holmes

          Re: Not their call

          Turn it off at or unplug it from the wall. Job done.

          If you can't find a switch on it and you live in one of those houses that don't have switches on the wall sockets (never actually seen one myself but maybe they exist in 110v places?) or the wall switch is hard to reach, get your self a multi-box with individual switches, or put a line switch in it's power cord, or...

          If you're really worried, just don't have one in the house.

    2. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Not their call

      Amazon is appealing it in court. That's what the article is about!

      If you don't believe that a given demand is valid, you never comply with the demand and then appeal afterwards - that would mean the end of any privacy rights whatsoever.

      1. tom dial Silver badge

        Re: Not their call

        Nothing in the Register article, or in the c/net article to which it links, suggests Amazon has done more than refuse to honor the warrant. They might have done, but neither article mentions more than simply refusal to comply and general public statements with no legal justification pertinent to the particular case.

    3. sisk Silver badge

      Re: Not their call

      I've considered building something along the lines of an echo for my house. Mine would have a Raspberry Pi at it's heart - like every other IoT device in my home because I don't trust internet connected devices built with non-existent security considerations and programmed by God-only-knows-who - and use a fully local speech recognition engine. I see no reason to stream commands to a server controlled by someone else when even the cheapest processors have plenty of power to handle the level of speech recognition needed for what these things do.

      Basically I'm sort of assuming that the Echo - along with Siri, Cortana, and everything that responds to the phrase "OK Google" - is eavesdropping and collecting data to sell to advertisers.

    4. Kiwi Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Not their call

      If the warrant is "over broad," Amazon can appeal that in court. You can't just decide "oh, no, I don't want to play" when you get a warrant. If there is something wrong with the warrant (which I'm not able to judge), then I hope Amazon pursues that avenue and wins.

      Cops appear at your door, hand you some papers and tell you they have a warrant to search for and seize any equipment in the house and to arrest you on charges relating to the material you expect to find.

      Would you let them continue, despite the fact the the warrant is clearly for house # 64 and you live at # 164? Or would you protest and suggest they visit the correct address?

      Either way, the police have a duty to follow the law. Most civilised countries (a club UK looks set to leave if May has her way!) have laws relating to what is and is not a legal warrant. If a warrant is not legal, there is no reason to follow it, and every reason to deny it.

  13. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Install your own Big Brother

    Over 50% of people are below average! Internet webcams, video door bells, IoT and devices such as Echo are great ways of spying on yourself. Since the Echo is always listening for a key word, it shouldn't be very hard to have it listen for key phrases or catalog what languages are being spoken within its range of hearing. If I make an online search, I have to take a deliberate action, typing, to make the search. That might make me a bit more circumspect about what I search for. So many people respond with "I don't have anything to hide so I don't care." Wellllll, that's great until something happens or you say too many key words in a short period of time that triggers something. Cory Doctorow has a great talk on Privacy vs. Secrecy.

    Any device that records something that you do be it audio, video, utility usage, will be used against you in a court of law.

    I wouldn't be surprised if an Echo placed in a bedroom detects every time a couple (or more) has sex. Fall under the average and you will start getting more ads for various pills and aids.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Install your own Big Brother

      "I wouldn't be surprised if an Echo placed in a bedroom detects every time a couple (or more) has sex."

      An article somewhere recently was about a guy's house that he had wired with all sorts of detectors and monitors. The idea was to see where he could save energy and water. One detector was for CO2. A surprise result was that it indicated a rise when people were having fun in a bedroom.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-38261690

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Install your own Big Brother

      Add divorce lawyers to that list, for either recording no activity, or extra marital activities!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't own one but I know someone that does.

    I know that once you say Alexa it listens and records what you say in the app so you can review said requests and perform a search (bing) should it not know what to do.

    I'm guessing they got the information off the app which was "Alexa, James Bates is currently strangling me what should I do?", so no need for a warrant or to force Amazon to disclose whether it does or does not record all the time.

    I know all this because of the wet fart questions I posed which Alexa could not answer therefore I will not be purchasing one of these devices. My advice to people is be careful what you ask these things as it can be rather embarrassing when the owner reviews the requests.

    If anyone's interested I found a page on the internet about changing underwear and the correct amounts of fibre in diet. It would appear I was eating too many sugar puffs and have since rectified this which as a side positive has improved the smell of my wee.

  15. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    One more reason to not buy any of this IoT gear

    Amid the requests to turn off the lights or turn the thermostat to 68 Fahrenheit, the IRS can get you and your spouse talking about your income and charitable contributions as you prepare your tax return.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    New commercial?

    "Alexa... how do I dispose of a dead body?"

  17. Emmeran

    Next stage of Robogeddon

    Cloud A.I. Called as Witness at Murder Trial

  18. Adam Jarvis

    Alexa...'SOS'...Alexa...'Emergency' = X device begins full recording...transcript.

    Where X = {Alexa, OK Google, Cortana, Siri} etc. (until device dies, power pulled/portable device battery goes flat)

    How long before those two commands are added to the device (or forced to by Governments). I claim my 'obvious' Patent here.

    1. Kiwi Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Alexa...'SOS'...Alexa...'Emergency' = X device begins full recording...transcript.

      I claim my 'obvious' Patent here.

      Tough. I am a patent lawyer for Apple. Even though we have only invented this in the last couple of seconds (and not at all after discovering that you did it first), I hearby notify you that we are suing you for $US1,000,00,000,000,000.87 for infringement of our patent.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Splish Splash

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KmKkV3ddAo

    Arrrrrrrg

  20. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    "... verbal gesture ..."

    Huh?

    1. Wensleydale Cheese Silver badge

      ... verbal gesture ..."

      Huh?

      That's the French version which catches the shrugs and arm movements.

  21. DougS Silver badge

    There's a second tech angle to this story

    Apparently the guy had a smart water meter, and the police are claiming an unusually high amount of water he used the night of the murder was due to the cleanup. He claims its clock was off, and it had recorded filling up his hot tub the night before.

    More reasons to avoid "smart" anything unless you and YOU ALONE are in charge of it. Yeah, you can say "if you don't do anything wrong, you have nothing to fear", but that's a pretty short sighted view that Germans of the 1930s and many others would take issue with.

  22. Mr Han

    No friends

    For those of you with no friends, then not buying one is an option. But say you visit a friend who has one...

    Friend: You're a bit quiet tonight, are you ok?

    You: Well, you see, you have that new surveillance device, ALEXA, who is recording everything I say.

    ALEXA: Thank you for your query. Everything you say is being recorded by, but not limited to, the following parties: Amazon, Google, Microsoft, The NSA, The Food Standards Agency, The Department of Health, The Ministy of Fisheries, your local council, your spouse, that nosey cow over the road who works for the Department of Work and Pensions. Would you like the full list of 824 entries?

    You: ?!?!

    1. W4YBO

      Re: There's a second tech angle to this story

      Excellent points!

      But I am curious why "...an unusually high amount of water he used the night of the murder was due to the cleanup..." would be necessary to clean up blood after a strangling?

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Here is why they do it

    By publicizing the refusal in a murder case, they hope to gin up support for more invasive legal privileges for future convenience.

  24. Eddy Ito Silver badge

    Just so I'm clear. If I'm going to plan a murder at my home I'll need a water storage tank to buffer water use and have it fill slow enough so that it looks like a small leak. I'll further need a battery sufficient to buffer any power use when washing evidence away and the use of power tools to mince the body. It would be wise to have a renewable energy source like solar or wind to also help hide actual use. I'll further need a recording to play to sir-alex-ok google to indicate that nothing out of the ordinary happened during said murder and then burn that recording.

    Or, I could buy a $25 gat in da hood and pop a cap in 'is ass when he's walkin' b'twixt his pic'up and the front dorr, ya kno'. Den toss the gat in the Mis-sipp. Oh yeah, wear gloves and optionally spill a bag of meth near the body to complete the picture.

    Yeah, I know, it will probably only be a few years before this argument is used by a defense lawyer somewhere.

  25. doke

    buffer in ram

    Why would there be anything to extract from the device? It should be keeping the audio buffer in RAM. If it were in flash, it would run through the erase cycles too quickly. So when the cops unplugged it, it should have blanked. If they left it plugged in, it should have overwritten that part of the circular buffer after a few minutes.

  26. This post has been deleted by its author

  27. sisk Silver badge

    Erm....from the sounds of it the warrant in question is 'valid and binding legal' and not "overly broad'. I'm all for protecting privacy, but it seems to me that this is one particular instance where the authorities are doing it right and really should be handed the data they're asking for.

  28. Camilla Smythe Silver badge

    Don't they just 'Plead The Fifth'?

    https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fifth_amendment

    nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself

  29. Amos1

    Whay don't they just look in the Alexa app on his phone?

    The app keeps a transcript of EVERYTHING it hears so you can mark it as correct or not. If something is in there it would let them narrow the warrant. If it had all been erased, it would give them other grounds.

  30. Kiwi Silver badge
    WTF?

    One thing gets me..

    Samsung TV's, Echo, all sorts of other devices...

    My first cell phone (I was a late adopted due to the phobia of being seen as yuppie larvae) was a Sony Ericson T209. Like these devices it had voice recognition (actually the best I've seen in any cell phone I've owned, though spending more than $100 on one is not something I'd do!). And like these devices it also had a "wake up" word so it knew that whatever it heard next was intended for it, not just general conversation.

    But unlike these devices, this puny ancient piece of kit did all it's own VR processing. Sure it was limited to a few commands, maybe 20-30 (not counting people's names), but on that tiny device it had the power to do it's own VR processing.

    Computers have grown massively in RAM and processing power since then, while even a device like an Echo has the same space as what, a dozen of those old phones?

    So what gives with the "send data back to our server for processing"? Surely that cannot be for innocent purposes?

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