Alexa, Siri, Google – no, these aren’t the latest trends on babynames.com. They are the AI (Artificial Intelligence) assistants making their way into an increasing number of houses. Privacy concerns haven’t stopped these devices from successfully infiltrating homes across the U.S., but a new case has people wondering what role they will have in keeping tabs on a population that is continuously being recorded.
A New Hampshire judge has ruled that recordings from an Amazon Echo device (featuring Alexa as your trusty AI home spy – err, assistant) will be handed over and checked for evidence pertaining to a double homicide.
Did Alexa Witness a Murder?
In January 2017, Timothy Verrill was accused of stabbing Christine Sullivan and Jenna Pellegrini to death. The location of the alleged murders was an unusually high-tech house, complete with biometric entry requirements, video surveillance, and of course, an Amazon Echo. In addition to video and biological evidence, police suspect that the Echo may contain recordings of the incident. Do law enforcement have probable cause to suggest the device recorded the killings or related events? That very issue, as well as the future of police powers in a high-tech world, is explored by an in-depth piece on Slate.com, but in this case, Judge Steven M. Houran has recently ruled that:
“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 … and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen.”
The court order, initially obtained by TechCrunch, allows police to search the recordings stored by Amazon around the dates of the crimes. Amazon has thus far been reluctant to divulge such information on its customers, telling the Associated Press before the court order that the company wouldn’t release the recording “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.”
Amazon’s Spy Machine
Amazon resisted a subpoena for an Echo recording during a 2015 murder investigation of suspect James Bates, although the company eventually handed over the data to police after the defendant consented to the release. Their resistance was ostensibly over free speech issues, with Amazon stating in a lengthy argument against the 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 material … Such government demands inevitably chill users from exercising their First Amendment rights to seek and receive information and expressive content in the privacy of their own home, conduct which lies at the core of the Constitution.”
It is true that there are free speech and privacy issues at stake here, although the charges against Bates were eventually dropped. While law enforcement may be excited over the potential of evidence of serious crimes, how could this data be used in the burgeoning “hate crime” industry that is sweeping Europe? Even the U.S. is not immune to talk of instituting hate speech as a crime, with constitutional amendments a future possibility.
But what the above quote reveals is that Amazon – nowadays far from just an online retail outlet – fears that potential government interference may “chill” customers from deciding to give Alexa all their personal information – the data the company needs to expand its surveillance network. No wonder employees are starting to worry that they are “in the business of facilitating authoritarian surveillance.”
Government surveillance powers are being usurped by corporate ones. While it appears that Amazon is reluctant to hand over the information it holds dear, the company certainly has no problem in possessing and hoarding that treasure.
Although Alexa is not “supposed” to record until it hears the user say a programmed “wake word” –usually “Alexa” – to trigger a recording (which is sent to and stored on Amazon servers), the fact that the device constantly tracks for “wake words” logically suggests that it is always listening to its surroundings. Numerous incidents and privacy breaches have revealed that Alexa has access to much more information than Amazon is letting on.
In July 2017, Alexa reportedly phoned 911 during a domestic assault. After a man allegedly drew a gun and asked his girlfriend, “Did you call the sheriffs?” the device automatically called the emergency services, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Felicia Romero claimed, although Amazon denied that the device was capable of such action without special programming. In this case, the information may have saved a life, but not all such episodes have yielded such positive results.
In May, a Portland woman, identified only as Danielle, claimed her privacy was invaded when her Echo recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random person on her contact list. She claimed that an employee had called, saying that they had received audio files of a discussion between Danielle and her husband about hardwood flooring. “I felt invaded,” Danielle told KIRO7 TV. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'” Amazon verified the incident.
A similar device, Google’s Home Mini, was revealed to be spying on users and sending the information back to Google. Tech blogger Artem Russakovskii wrote that his unit, supplied by Google’s PR team, “Was waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google. All of this was done quietly, with only the four lights on the unit I wasn’t looking at flashing on and then off.”
While Google and Amazon claim that these are isolated anomalies, California based organization Consumer Watchdog argues that patent applications by these companies reveal plans to implement a future surveillance state. John M. Simpson, the group’s Privacy and Technology Project Director, said in a statement:
“Google and Amazon executives want you to think that Google Home and Amazon Echo are there to help you out at the sound of your voice. In fact, they’re all about snooping on you and your family in your home and gathering as much information on your activities as possible … Instead of charging you for these surveillance devices, Google and Amazon should be paying you to take one into your home.”
As Simpson implies, this may very well be the ultimate scam perpetrated on consumers: Steal their personal data and get them excited about paying you to do it. No wonder Amazon and Google execs are among the wealthiest people on Earth.
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