The Amazon Echo: Expert Witness in a Murder Trial?

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on February 17, 2021

The Amazon Echo: Expert Witness in a Murder Trial?

Alexa as an Expert Witness

The Amazon Echo, a smart speaker and personal assistant device responsive to voice commands, was one of this holiday season’s most popular gifts. Amazon.com, Inc. states that the Echo was its best-selling product, with millions sold worldwide. The Echo has myriad of uses – it streams music, reads audio books aloud, and now . . . may solve a murder?

Prosecutors in Arkansas seem to think so. Last year, the body of Victor Collins was found floating in a hot tub at a friend’s home. The friend, James Andrew Bates, was subsequently charged with murder. An Echo device was found on Bates’ property. Consequently, prosecutors requested the court to compel Amazon to provide data from the Echo that may reveal more about the events that led up to Collins’ murder. In August, the judge signed a search warrant. It requested all “audio recordings, transcribed records, text records and other data” on Bates’ Echo. However Amazon has yet to fully comply. An Amazon spokesperson released a statement that they “will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand”. Furthermore, it objects to “overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

Whether Amazon produces the requested data may have far-reaching implications regarding the privacy of the millions of people that own the device and similar smart speaker devices (Google Home is the Echo’s top competitor). As the first case of its kind, the issues surrounding this criminal prosecution will set the precedent for how future criminal matters will handle the admissibility of Echo’s data. If the Echo’s records are admissible at trial, expert witnesses will be needed not just to explain how the device works; but also to ensure that the data is correctly interpreted to avoid unnecessary breaches of privacy.

What Can the Echo Uncover?

The Amazon Echo offers a wide variety of functions by voice command. Responding to the name “Alexa,” the user can ask the device simple questions – such as the temperature – or more involved queries, such as recipes. Once the Echo hears “Alexa” (or another activation phrase set up by the user), it begins to record. The user’s commands or questions are then sent to Amazon’s cloud servers; where the recorded snippet is run through a speech-recognition neural network. At which point, a response to the user’s command or query is sent back through the Echo. Amazon keeps all of the recordings.

However, audio is only saved after the keyword – usually “Alexa” – is spoken and triggers the recording device. Users can elect to delete their old voice recordings on Amazon’s website or through the Echo app on their phone. In addition, the Echo has a “hard mute,” which physically disconnects the microphone, making it impossible to record audio.

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Amazon does not have a stated policy about how long it holds onto such data. The Echo itself does not have much hard drive space, so little information is stored on the actual device. Therefore, if some sort of clue does exist on Bates’ Echo, prosecutors would need to obtain the records from Amazon. This would be the only means of obtaining any pertinent data from the device.

How Can the Experts Help?

As a case of first impression, the admissibility of the Echo would act as a test case for how evidentiary rules apply to other similar internet-connected home appliances. Assuming that the Echo’s data itself can be admitted as a business record; a custodian or other qualified witness must testify as to how the recordings were made and kept in the course of regularly conducted activity. In lieu of trial testimony, such witnesses do have the option of providing the business records with a certification. As long as it complies with the jurisdiction’s rules governing self-authentication. However, in consideration of the novelty of the device, simply admitting the data as a business record will likely be insufficient for a jury to fully understand the information.

At minimum, an expert in voice-activated technology would be useful in explaining to the jury how the Echo processes the user’s voice, recognizes its query, and responds. The Echo processes information through a speech-recognition neural network. This is essentially computer simulation of a human brain (also known as artificial intelligence). Its purpose is to process data and recognize patterns so that the device can eventually detect patterns of future data.

An expert in computer science would be needed to explain how the device processes the user’s voice. As well as the reliability of the technology. This may be of particular importance to Bates’ defense if the device was triggered erroneously or activated by the wrong word. In which case, the defense may have the tentative argument against the data’s admission. Likewise, it is incumbent on the prosecution, if the device does uncover a clue to the case, to establish the reliability of the Echo from a computer science perspective.

However, there is more that can be uncovered on the Echo than just voice recordings. The Echo integrates with a variety of other home automation smart devices. This enables the user to control a range of utilities in the home such as lighting, security systems, and electricity. If the Echo is connected to such other devices, there is a potential slew of information that can be used as circumstantial evidence in prosecuting or defending a crime. For example, in the Bates’ case, it might have been information from a “smart meter” that proved to be the most useful.

According to a meter that measures hourly electricity and water usage; data has shown that Bates used an “excessive amount of water” during the alleged drowning. However, it is not yet known if the water meter is also linked to the Echo. Because the Echo integrates other devices that measure an occupant’s utilities usage; a witness qualified to testify about the particular utilities system would be needed to interpret the meter’s data. In addition, a crime reconstruction specialist would most likely be needed to link any utilities data with the commission of a crime.

Overall, the data that can be produced from an Echo is proportional to its usage. For the majority of its users, the Echo will not likely be used against them in a court of law. But because it offers a variety of functions that can track and monitor one’s home life, it is important to be aware of any potential privacy issues that may arise. In Bates’ case, the Echo’s data may be innocuous. But it may also very well be the clue to solving a murder.

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