Mimesis Law
23 June 2017

Arkansas Prosecutors Attempt To Order Evidence From Amazon

January 3, 2017 (Fault Lines) – At the dawn of 2017, the way people live their lives is evolving at light speed. Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to be a consumer. And thanks to that same technology, it’s never been harder to be a criminal. Such is the curse of our brave new world.

A Bentonville, Arkansas man is learning about this double-edged sword the hard way. James Andrew Bates is suspected of murder. Detectives are seeking evidence from an unlikely witness. The investigation has targeted Alexa, Amazon’s fancy new electronic domestic assistant. The case demonstrates how privacy has taken on a whole new role in our lives.

Alexa is a digital assistant located on various items from the retail giant Amazon. It’s kind of like Siri, except not from Apple. When you set up in your house, it becomes a Big Brother handy helper.

The Amazon Echo is an always-on digital assistant that can answer questions, order items and stream music, among other tasks. It supports Amazon’s voice-recognition program Alexa, which operates in the cloud.

It’s pretty easy to order items from Amazon, but now you don’t even have to inconvenience yourself by pulling out your phone or sitting down in front of your computer. You just yell across the room to a speaker-looking thing and your next purchase is on its way. Or your tunes turn on. Or you get a quick answer to whatever trivial question is occupying your brain. Pretty neat, as useless consumer items go.

Bates got sideways with Alexa during a wild hot tub party at his house back in November of 2015. He and three buddies were engaged in the time-honored tradition of watching football and boozing. One of the guys left. The remaining two decided to crash at Bates’ house. One of those men, Victor Collins, was found dead the next morning in Bates’ hot tub.

The case would be a regular old murder investigation, except for the creativity of some law enforcement agent who must be on the cutting edge of buying stuff. Noticing Bates had an Echo speaker in the house, prosecutors realized Alexa was listening during the time Collins died. They promptly sought a search warrant for whatever information Alexa might have heard and sent it off to the cloud, where Amazon now possesses it.

Amazon and Bentonville prosecutors are now facing off over giving up the information. Prosecutors, of course, say it’s an easy call and Amazon should do as it’s told.

[Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith]’s office made two attempts to obtain the data from the Echo, but Amazon refused both times. The company declined to comply with a search warrant, he said.

“They’ll say it’s for privacy reasons, but I don’t believe they have a legal leg to stand on,” he said. “I don’t think they’re a bad company or anything, but I don’t think they want to release it because they want to sell more of them.”

Prosecutors have never seen a search warrant that wasn’t just and righteous, so it’s a personal insult that Amazon won’t bend over open up and comply. The lawmen get what they want, so why not now?

Investigators have routinely obtained warrants for suspects’ phones, computers, even their blood, he said, so “there’s not a rational or legal reason that we shouldn’t be able to search that device.”

Amazon just wants an actual search warrant that is not bullshit overly broad.

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” it said in a statement. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

In other words, Amazon just wants the prosecutor to put a little effort into its search warrant. It’s not likely the cops are going to find much if they do access Alexa’s computer brain. Alexa doesn’t actually listen to everything that goes on, or record everything that goes on, or even store everything that goes on. But that says more about the police and prosecutors than Amazon. They are so used to getting whatever they want they haven’t even stopped to think about whether they will actually get anything useful.

Regardless of whether Alexa helps the prosecution in this particular case, the search warrant raises broader implications. As we start to expose our lives to corporations in pursuit of the easiest possible consumer experience, sources of information available to the government increase exponentially.

“We haven’t yet seen, but we will see, the same kind of things happening with these voice-activated home devices,” [Fordham University law professor Joel] Reidenberg told CNN. “These are the perfect surveillance devices, if they aren’t treated with care.”

But are these really surveillance devices? “Surveillance” implies the government is actively monitoring people. Your handy home digital assistant might be monitoring you, but that’s your fault, not the government’s.

There is a reason why Amazon knows just what you want when you log on. It’s watching you. Recording what you type. It knows what you are ranting about, or liking, on Facebook. It reads your emails. It sees what you are researching. It knows you.

And as time goes on, it will be spying on your criminal activity. And we all know that while Amazon may be nobly battling for your privacy at the moment, that won’t last. The government usually gets what it wants. So be aware, they are going to get your information. The information you willingly gave away.

Privacy becomes a muddled issue as the future arrives. There is a natural inclination to bitch about the government snooping into all our private affairs. On the other hand, why is it so easy to snoop into those affairs? Shouldn’t we take some responsibility for our own privacy?

It’s one thing for the government to violate the sanctity of our private lives. But when we make that life less private because we can’t be bothered to walk across the room to change the song we are listening to, it’s a little less of a violation. When the police convict you because of all the stuff you told a machine, that will suck. But why did you tell the machine all that stuff?

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