Can your Alexa be used against you in court?

By: Clark Howard

Updated:

Voice assistants like the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Siri are changing the way we do just about everything -- even how law enforcement solves crimes.

After the murder of a Georgia man, WSB consumer adviser Clark Howard examined how these devices work and what it means for your privacy.  

Getting news, scheduling appointments, and compiling a shopping list can be done without ever touching a keyboard. Those are all reasons Lauren Chadwell, who works in the tech industry, uses an Amazon Echo Dot, a more compact version of the Echo.

“[I use it] mostly to play music, set a timer if I'm cooking, or if I have a random question and I don't want to grab my phone or go to a computer,” Chadwell said. “It's a cool way to utilize technology without having your face in a screen all the time.”


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Howard explained these voice assistants work by listening for certain “wake” words.  For the Echo that word is, Alexa. For Google home, OK Google, and for Siri, Siri. When the word is detected a recording of the interaction begins.

“As those recordings build up the devices are able to learn more about the user and become more efficient,” Howard said. “With the convenience comes constant monitoring.”

Chadwell said at times her Echo Dot wakes up when she hasn’t said Alexa.

“But then you just ignore her. It's a little bit creepy, but I don't think it's so creepy that I would get rid of it,” Chadwell said.


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What these devices record, accidental or otherwise, is what prompted Nathan Smith, prosecuting attorney for Benton County, Arkansas, to request a search warrant for the recordings on the Echo of James Bates.

Bates is accused of murdering former Georgia police Officer, Victor Collins.

“As society and technology evolves, the way police investigate crime has to evolve as well, so clearly technology and technology searches of devices people have will become increasingly important,” Smith explained.

So far Amazon has not complied, telling WSB in a statement: “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.”

Smith is hopeful the company will work with his department.

“Certainly I realize that Amazon has business interest and a great deal of their model hinges on people’s right to privacy and I completely understand that,” Smith said. “People need to understand that this is not a threat to their privacy, any more than if police sought a search warrant for your home or your car.”

Privacy advocates, like Ernesto Falcon, disagree. Falcon, a lawyer working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said search warrants like the one in Benton County is a slippery slope.

“The fact of the matter is having a device that's interconnected and innovative shouldn't mean you've seeded your privacy rights to the federal government in exchange for that,” Falcon said. “What ends up happening though, when we talk about internet connected devices and the internet of things, is law enforcement and tech companies are entering this space where the tech industry is serving as a repository for information, particularly when these types of devices hear and see what you do inside your house, and it's taking it outside of the house. We would argue there isn't a proper distinction between where it's stored and where it's originating.”

Channel 2 Consumer Advisor Clark Howard says the in-home technology could impact your privacy.

He wants consumers to be aware of the device in their home.

“What folks need to recognize is just because the device says it will trigger under some sort of command or something that essentially means it's always listening it's always hearing what's happening,” Falcon said.

Howard said there are ways for you to stop the devices you use from listening. Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home have a mute button. You can also simply unplug them. There is an option to turn off Apple’s Siri in iPhone’s settings.

Recordings stored on an Amazon Echo can be accessed and deleted in the Alexa app. Users can access a history option, review the recordings and delete them. There is also an option to Delete recordings in an Amazon Prime account by selecting lists, then click on “manage your content and devices”, click on “devices,” choose your device and click “manage voice recordings.”

Google also allows you to manage your activity. Go to “My account,” click “My account activity” and click “Delete my activity.” Users will be given the option to delete by topic, product or date.

Apple will automatically delete your activity when you turn off Siri and Dictation.

Howard said it’s important to remember that when recordings are deleted, the devices will have to start the learning process over. 

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