If you’re going to murder someone, don’t do it around Alexa
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If you’re going to murder someone, don’t do it around Alexa

A judge in New Hampshire has compelled Amazon to produce Alexa’s recordings from the day of a double murder

A double-murder case in New Hampshire has the potential to really unveil the level of surveillance that connected in-home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home conduct on their owners. If that’s creepy to you – it should be.

Because right now, it’s not conventional wisdom the degree to which these devices actually do keep tabs on us. The idea that Google or Facebook are listening to you through your microphone or that someone is spying via your webcam tends to be regarded more as an urban myth with bits of anecdotal evidence propping up the case.

That may be naïve.

So today we’ll talk about these in-home IoT devices and just how much data they’re collecting on you.

Let’s hash it out…

Amazon AlexaWhat you say (around your Echo) can and will be used against you in a court of law

I’m going to preface with this: generally my tendency is to be subversive and indulge my dry wit, I’m going to tread lightly here because it would be incredibly inappropriate to joke about this part. On January 27th, Christine Sullivan was stabbed to death along with her friend, Jenna Pellegrini, in the home Sullivan shared with her boyfriend.

Their bodies were discovered two days later, wrapped in a tarp and hidden under the house’s porch. The murder weapons were buried a foot beneath them.

Prosecutors charged Timothy Verrill, a 36 year-old man whom they allege murdered the two women because he suspected one of the women of tipping off the police about a drug operation.

To help piece things together, the New Hampshire DA charged with prosecuting the case has subpoenaed Amazon for the material Sullivan’s Echo device may have recorded between the time of the murder and when the bodies were discovered two days later. An Amazon Echo is a smart speaker that connects with Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa. It has the capability to record audio. A feature that makes a lot of more privacy-minded people uncomfortable.

Last week a judge honored the DA’s request and compelled Amazon to produce the recorded audio.

From court documents seen by the Washington Post:

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 from the period of Jan. 27 to Jan. 29, 2017… and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen.

Will Amazon release the audio that Sullivan’s Echo recorded?

Amazon Logo, Amazon AlexaNot without a fight. This is the second time that a case like this has occurred and a court has told Amazon to hand over its recordings.

In late 2015 a murdered man was found in a hot tub and Amazon was ordered to produce recordings that the suspect’s Echo had made. Amazon fought the court order by claiming that both the voice recordings made by the user as well as the responses from Alexa were protected under the United States’ first amendment.

Amazon starts by citing a ruling from Griswold v. Connecticut, that says “Freedom of Speech” specifically covers:

“[The] right to receive, the right to read, and freedom of inquiry…”

Amazon also used the precedent from a previous ruling in favor of Google that stated ranked search results constitute a “constitutionally protected” opinion, so Amazon’s responses – many of which leverage said search rankings – qualify as free speech. That’s a bit of a stretch in my opinion because the Google ruling (St. Louis Martin v. Google) said that the search giant couldn’t be compelled to CHANGE its rankings because they were protected opinions.

It’s an interesting argument but ultimately it was never decided on because the suspect released the recordings of his own volition and they ended up being relatively useless anyway. The charges against him were later dropped.

This is less about the murder and more about the legal battle

While the desire to get justice for these two young women absolutely merits this court order, the larger impact societally will come from the debate over its legality.

Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.

As we just laid out, Amazon has a novel argument, one backed up by precedent from previous cases. It also has a lot of resources to throw at this issue, which from Amazon’s perspective is incredibly important.

And when you consider the ramifications, it’s pretty obvious why.

Because it’s not a good precedent to set

Let’s start with the most obvious one. Amazon, Google, Facebook – they all have these kinds of smart devices with voice assistants – none of them want to have to hand over their data at the government’s beckoned call. They all say they want to comply with law enforcement, but that’s generally lip service. Data is the most precious commodity in our modern economy. And these companies want to be as opaque as possible about how the proverbial sausage is made – what exactly they’re collecting, how they’re using it, who might be interested in purchasing it, etc.

Case in point, look at the way Google and Facebook are actively flouting the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This decision could set a precedent that Amazon and the rest of these companies don’t want to live up to.

Because Amazon would have to disclose how much Alexa really records

Beyond that, and admittedly this is a bit more conspiratorial, but Amazon may not want to disclose how much all of these Alexa-enabled devices actually record. Alexa might be a lot more of a busy-body than we were led to believe. Now, I know that generally sounds like something that would come from the tin foil hat camp. And Alexa is only supposed to record when she’s prompted with words like “Alexa,” “computer” and “Echo.” But who really knows. It frankly depends on how much you trust Amazon, Google, whoever made your virtual assistant.

Also, computer seems a little odd as a prompt word, because outside of Lego Batman, I’m not sure how many commands aimed at smart devices begin with “computer.” That actually seems like a word that would far more commonly trigger the Echo to begin recording anytime the it comes up over the course of regular conversation.

That could be trifles compared to what would happen if Amazon loses on this one and has to hand over all the audio the device recorded though. Because, on the (hopefully) off chance that these things are overstepping their mandate and recording a lot more than we were told they would—well, to quote Joe Biden that’s going to be “a big #$%&ing deal.”

Then there’s the final area that this dispute could have an impact.

Because this will have a major impact in the upcoming debate over AI

Amazon’s Alexa is not actually an AI yet. Let’s start with that because I can already picture someone racing down to the comments section, “well, actually…” Don’t be that guy. She’s not an AI—she’s an intelligent virtual assistant that uses machine learning. Got it.

But two things are happening with Alexa that are going to be bellwethers for what will happen with AI when it truly arrives. The first is Alexa’s personification. Alexa is purposely designed to blur the line between human and computer. She has an inviting female voice. She has a name. People generally have to call her by that name to interact with her. She doesn’t take verbal abuse. I’m even using a personal pronoun to talk about her.

Our growing tendency to treat Alexa more like a human and less like a machine is telling because as computers become more human, people may have less of an aversion than some academics predict.

And that informs the second, more profound aspect of this legal battle: this could result in a virtual entity being extended first amendment rights. That’s kind of a big deal. One that will be of incredible consequence as AI approaches ubiquity in a decade or so.

Keep an eye on this one

So, as we covered, as much as this is about a horrific act of violence that claimed two lives, its larger legacy may just be that it forced a court decision and set a precedent for the rights of major tech companies and AI alike.

So keep an eye on this one. And in the meantime, if you’re going to commit a crime, make sure to unplug your smart speakers and virtual assistants.

As always, leave any questions or comments below…

Hashed Out by The SSL Store is the voice of record in the SSL/TLS industry.


Patrick Nohe

Patrick started his career as a beat reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald before moving into the cybersecurity industry a few years ago. Patrick covers encryption, hashing, browser UI/UX and general cyber security in a way that’s relatable for everyone.