By: Nadeem Bohsali
Amazon released its first Alexa enabled device, the echo dot in June 2015. Since then, numerous privacy and security concerns have been raised surrounding voice recordings collected by the device, which often resides in the most intimate areas of a person’s home. Alexa is IoT enabled, meaning that it has the capability to control virtually every aspect of a person’s home, from the TV, to thermostats, video cameras, and even kitchen appliances.
In its default mode, Alexa continuously listens to all speech, monitoring for the wake word to be spoken. Also, although the microphone can be turned off, this can only be done manually using a button on the device to turn off the audio processing circuit.
Because Alexa requires internet connectivity to function, many have raised concerns regarding the transmission of data to third party providers.
Apart from third-party provider concerns, some users worry about their data being transmitted to local, state, and federal level law enforcement authorities.
When it comes to privacy, not all tech companies are created equal. Notably, Apple has built a reputation for denying unwarranted FBI requests for its users’ data. Twitter gained similar notoriety for its transparency in cataloging responses to governmental information requests.
Amazon, however, does not hold the same reputation. For instance, Ring—the IoT enabled security camera company owned and operated by Amazon—has garnered criticism for its practice of regularly turning over its user data to law enforcement agencies.
In fact, Ring has actively partnered with hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide. In exchange for advertising and outreach opportunities to residents, Ring provides police departments access to its platforms, including video footage of their doorstep. This purportedly gives increased resources to law enforcement agencies to police their communities. However, critics note that such a partnership moves society closer and closer to a privatized, for-profit surveillance network.
In December 2016, an echo dot was subpoenaed in a murder investigation. In the early hours of a cold November morning in Bentonville, Arkansas, first responders discovered a corpse floating a hot tob on James Andrew Bates’ property. Mr. Bates told authorities he had first discovered the corpse early that morning. After the police observed signs of resistance to violence at the crime scene, they elected to subpoena Amazon in order to obtain the audio recordings present on the Mr. Bates’ device. the company initially resisted on first amendment grounds. However, the resident eventually authorized provision of the recordings to be turned over to the police.
The scenario in Bentonville has been hailed as the most appropriate hypothetical test case that could have presented itself. However, because the resident eventually authorized collection of the recordings by the police, legal questions surrounding the reasonable expectation of privacy were not decided.
In July 2019, Amazon made the front page yet again in another murder investigation. Police obtained a search warrant for recordings created by an Amazon Echo device regarding an alleged murder in Florida. The defendant, Adam Reechard Crespo, was charged with homicide of his then girlfriend, Silvia Galva. The client’s attorney has expressed relief that the recordings were turned over, as he believed they would exonerate his client.
Some suggest that implementing an Amazon Alexa in one’s home constitutes a waiver of the reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney, and Civil Liberties Director, David Greene suggests that by implementing devices such as Ring and Alexa Echo in our homes, we are “[T]rusting…third-part[ies] to assert our rights” … and to notify users when their information is being collected by others.”. Whether these actions lie beyond the purview of reasonable expectation of privacy has yet to be determined”.
 See Brad Stone & Spencer Stone, Amazon Unveils a Listening, Talking, Music-Playing Speaker for your Home, Bloomberg (Nov. 6, 2014, 4:12 PM EST). PM), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-06/amazon-echo-is-a-listening-talking-music-playing-speaker-for-your-home
 See Garfield Benjamin, Amazon Echo’s Privacy Issues Go Way Beyond Voice Recordings, The Conversation (Jan. 20, 2020, 10:36 AM EST), https://theconversation.com/amazon-echos-privacy-issues-go-way-beyond-voice-recordings-130016
 See Information Requests from January to June 2019, Twitter Transparency Report, https://transparency.twitter.com/en/information-requests.html
 See Jon Porter, Amazon is Helping Police Convince People to Hand over their Ring Camera Footage, The Verge (Aug. 6, 2019, 6:49 AM), https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/6/20756555/amazon-ring-police-security-camera-footage-warrant-privacy-surveillance.
 See id.
 See Jon Fingas, Florida Police Obtain Alexa Recordings in Murder Investigation, Engadget (Nov. 2, 2019), https://www.engadget.com/2019/11/02/florida-police-obtain-alexa-recordings-in-murder-case/
image source: https://boingboing.net/2018/08/12/alexa-bob-carol.html