Privacy, Murder and the Amazon Echo

The Information reported yesterday that in a recent murder investigation, police requested Amazon Echo recordings to aid their case.

"In what may be the first case of its kind, police investigating a murder in Bentonville, Arkansas, issued a warrant to to turn over audio and other records from an Echo. The device in question belongs to James Andrew Bates, who was charged earlier this year with first-degree murder. The victim, Victor Collins, was found dead in Mr. Bates’ hot tub one Sunday morning in November of last year.
"According to court records, Amazon twice declined to hand over information the Echo transmitted to its servers. The company did hand over Mr. Bates’ account information and purchase history. Police also said they took the device and extracted data off it, the records show. Amazon did not respond to questions about the case or how it responded to the search warrant."

This was an inevitable side effect of the rise in popularity of internet of things devices, and it brings several questions to mind.

Should Amazon have given the police all the data that was requested? Should our courts be able to compel them to do so? Is there a line where it is no longer worth swapping our privacy for swifter justice? These are important questions about privacy and the roles the government and technology companies should have in our lives. 

But I think there is a more fundamental question to ask ourselves. Should we be willingly filling our homes with surveillance devices in exchange for their added conveniences? 

As devices like the Echo become more common and we surround ourselves with the internet of things, our truly private moments are disappearing. Our phones, watches, thermostats, cars and countless other pieces of technology are recording our lives and sending information to the cloud. 

Using tech to solve a murder is a good thing, but if the government and tech organizations have this power, what’s stopping them for using it in other ways, in ways that go too far?

The growth of the internet of things is inevitable, and overall I am excited about how that will improve the world. But I know we'll be better served if we ask the tough questions now. 

Header Image from Pierre Lecourt