In case you haven’t heard, a murder case in Arkansas has gained recent attention for the attempted use of the suspect’s Amazon Echo in court. Data from a smart water meter is also being used as evidence, which raises big questions about privacy for our increasingly connected homes and lives.
Details of the Case:
Former Georgia police officer Victor Collins, age 47, was found dead in the hot tub of James Bates on November 22nd, 2015 in Bentonsville, Arkansas. According to the affidavit, there were signs of a struggle: broken glass, dried blood inside the home, and injuries to Collins and Bates.
Bates, the murder suspect, claims innocence and says he went to bed around 1am, finding Collins floating face-up in the hot tub in the morning. However, between the hours of 1am and 3am, Bates’ smart water meter shows that 140 gallons of water were used. Investigators allege that the water was used to clean evidence off of the patio.
Echoes of the Past
Someone who was present the night of the murder allegedly heard music being played through Bates’ Amazon Echo device. Authorities in Bentonsville has thus issued a warrant for Amazon to hand over any audio or records from the Echo belonging to Bates.
If you are unfamiliar with the Amazon Echo, it’s a hands-free speaker that can be controlled with your voice. The Echo features a personal assistant named Alexa who you can ask to perform a variety of tasks such as streaming music, telling you the weather forecast, or setting reminders for yourself, among many others. To use the personal assistant, simply say the wake word “Alexa” and then command/ask.
This means that the Echo is always listening so that it can hear the wake word. However, it’s important to note that audio is only being recorded in the few seconds after the wake word is used (when the LED ring at the top is blue). Amazon is not recording everything in your home.
The warrant was issued to listen to these short recordings in the hopes of getting lucky. Perhaps Bates’ Echo mistakenly thought it heard “Alexa” and recorded a few important seconds of audio. Or maybe one of the recordings can offer insight into the events of the night of the murder.
Amazon has refused to hand over the data saying, “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.”
Is the warrant not valid and legally binding as Amazon claims? I’m no expert in legal matters so I can’t say, but this case brings up…
Concerns and Broader Questions of Privacy
The outcome of the case is, in a sense, irrelevant. It’s the broader implications that we need to consider when it comes to what’s considered private.
Homes and lives that are increasingly connected will yield incredible benefits across many parts of our lives. With IoT we can achieve greater home security, decrease our costs/resources used, and improve our everyday experiences.
By necessity, these systems need to capture environmental data. The issue is that this data can be used to gain scary insight into our personal lives. Humidity sensors can be useful for HVAC systems to keep your home a pleasant environment, but they can also deduce that someone is currently taking a shower. Motion sensors are useful for lowering your electric bill by automatically turning off lights or the heating when no one is home, but they can also show exactly where you are in your home and your daily routines/patterns.
Many of the specific data points that are gathered won’t expose much personal information by themselves, but in aggregate all this data can open a clear window into your personal life.
Going back to the murder case, who would have thought that their smart water meter might one day be used as evidence that they were washing away evidence of a crime?
Most of us won’t commit any major crimes, but concern is a valid response to these new technologies. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that we try to stop the adoption of connected devices. They will be adopted regardless and I truly believe IoT can have a profoundly positive impact on our world.
Technology and it’s tools aren’t inherently good or evil, it’s how they’re used that’s important. Proper use starts with asking the right questions.
When it comes to law enforcement, what should be considered private information and what shouldn’t? In the U.S., the Fourth Amendment states, “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”.
But how does data fit in? These days, most of our data is stored in the cloud. We need to be cognizant of the contracts we’re signing with cloud providers, particularly when it comes to data ownership. If the data is owned by the cloud provider, it doesn’t seem as though it would fall under “persons, houses, papers, and effects”, perhaps opening that data to access by law enforcement.
Again, I’m no expert in legal matters, but my background in Philosophy has given me an interesting perspective. In many cases, moral questions arise where none were before due to new technologies. Before life-support, we didn’t have to consider whether a brain dead patient is alive or not. Their body may be alive due to the life support, but is it murder to pull the plug when there’s no chance of the “person” ever coming back?
In the same way, the Internet of Things and other new technologies will raise new moral questions. Because these questions are new in many respects, we can’t always look to the past and must continually look to the future. It all starts with the right questions.
“There are no right answers to wrong questions.” — Ursula K. Le Guin