Alexa: Are You Going to Testify Against Me?

By: Melissa Torres

Life seems pretty great in a world where we can turn lights off, play music, and close the blinds by simply speaking it into existence. But, what happens when your conversations or home noises are used against you in a criminal investigation? 

Smart speakers, such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa, are marketed as great tech gifts and the perfect addition to any home. A smart speaker is a speaker that can be controlled with your voice using a “virtual assistant”. It can answer questions for you, perform various automated tasks and control other compatible smart devices by simply activating its “wake word.”

According to, in order for a device to start recording, the user has to awaken the device by saying the default word, “Alexa.” The website states, “You’ll always know when Alexa is recording and sending your request to Amazon’s secure cloud because a blue light indicator will appear or an audio tone will sound on your Echo device.” Unless the wake word is used, the device does not listen to any other part of your conversations as a result of built-in technology called “keyword spotting”, according to Amazon.

Similarly, Google states, “Google Assistant is designed to wait in standby mode until it detects an activation, like when it hears ‘Hey Google.’ The status indicator on your device will let you know when Google Assistant is activated. When in standby mode, it won’t send what you’re saying to Google servers or anyone else.” 

Consumers consent to being recorded when they willingly enter a contract with these smart devices by clicking “I agree to the terms and conditions.” However, most people assume this refers only when implicating the “wake word.” Despite assurances from tech giants that these devices do not record without being prompted, there have been many reports that suggest otherwise. And recent in years, these smart devices have garnered attention as they have been called as the star witness in murder investigations.  

In October 2022, someone fatally shot two researchers before setting fire to the apartment they were found in. According to the report, Kansas police believe the killer was inside the apartment with the duo for several hours, including before and after their deaths. Investigators found an Amazon Alexa device inside the apartment and filed a search warrant for access to the device’s cloud storage, hoping it may have recorded clues as to who is responsible for the murders. If the police obtain relevant information, they may be able to use it in court, depending on how this evidence is classified.

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, all relevant evidence is admissible unless another rule specifies otherwise. Specifically, statements that are considered hearsay are not admissible unless an exception applies. Hearsay is any statement made outside the presence of court by a person for the purpose of offering it to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Although these devices technically do produce statements, courts have held that a statement is something uttered by a  person, not a machine. However, there is an important distinction between machines that have computer stored and computer generated data. Computer stored data that was entered by a human has the potential to be hearsay, while computer generated data without the assistance or input of a person is not considered hearsay.  The question of how these statements will be classified and whether they will be permitted in court is up to the judge. 

As such, this isn’t the first time police have requested data from a smart speaker during a murder investigation. In 2019, Florida police obtained search warrants for an Amazon Echo device believing it may have captured crucial information surrounding an alleged argument at a man’s home that ended in his girlfriend’s death. In 2017, a New Hampshire judge ordered Amazon to turn over two days of Amazon Echo recordings in a case where two women were murdered in their home. In these previous cases, the parties consented to handing over the data held on these devices without resistance. In 2015, however, Amazon pushed back when Arkansas authorities requested data over a case involving a dead man floating in a hot tub. Amazon explained that while it intends not to obstruct the investigation, it also seeks to protect its consumers First Amendment rights. 

According to the complaint, Amazon’s legal team wrote, “At the heart of that First Amendment protection is the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery,” later explaining that the protections for Amazon Alexa were twofold: “The responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech.” Ultimately, the Arkansas court never decided on the issue as the implicated individual offered up the information himself.      

Thus, a question is still unanswered: Exactly how much privacy can we reasonably expect when installing a smart speaker? As previously mentioned, these smart speakers have been known to activate without the use of a “wake word”, potentially capturing damning conversations. Without a specified legal standard, there’s not much consumers can do to protect their private information from being shared as of now, fueling the worry that these devices can be used against them. Tech companies, like Amazon and Google, suggest going into the settings and turning off the microphone when you aren’t using it, but that requires trusting the company to actually honor those settings. Users also have the option to review and delete recordings, but again you have to trust the company to honor this. The only sure way to protect yourself from these devices is by simply not purchasing them. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, be sure to unplug the devices when you’re not using them. Otherwise, it’s possible these smart speakers may be used as evidence against you in court.

Is Amazon’s APEX the Top Option for Patent Rights?

By: Nicholas Lipperd

Are more avenues to resolve patent disputes a good thing? Patent litigation is a process that can easily cost millions of dollars and which lasts years; it is not exactly an option available to every patent holder. Even with the availability of arbitration, options to protect patents remain limited. Amazon has determined that a private patent evaluation program is a good thing, at least for its Amazon Marketplace. After beta-testing for three years under the name “Utility Patent Neutral Evaluation (UPNE),” Amazon formally implemented its Amazon Patent Evaluation Express (“APEX”) system in 2022, which allows sellers to flag possibly infringing products for Amazon to analyze without the use of the judicial patent system. This system advertises cheap, fast, and fair outcomes to sellers on Amazon Marketplace asserting their utility patent rights, yet has drawn criticism for disproportionately one-sided outcomes leading to its use as a retaliatory tool. Does the fact that this cheap, quick process reduces barriers to litigation offset these shortcomings? Should Amazon make changes to its process to achieve more balanced results?

A case brought in Federal Court for patent infringement takes two to four years to adjudicate, not including an additional year if an appeal is sought. Intrinsically tied to this lengthy timeline is the hefty price tag. Though the median cost for patent infringement cases with $1 million-$10 million at risk fell 250% from 2015 -2019, a full patent trial will still average $1.5 million. How does a patent holder without such resources assert the patent’s rights? Arbitration or mediation are cheaper options, at $50,000 on average, but often requires the other side to agree to participate. When the patent owner wants the patent rights asserted within Amazon Marketplace, though, the owner generally has a cheaper and faster option.

Amazon’s APEX program allows patent holders to have their patents examined by a neutral third-party patent examiner, rather than the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). APEX begins with the patent holder submitting a complaint through Amazon’s Brand Registry, providing the Amazon Standard Identification Numbers (ASINs) of the allegedly infringing sellers and upon which claim in which patent the holder believes the ASINs infringe. For each alleged infringer, Amazon sends a notice and allows up to three weeks for a response. Should Amazon receive no response, such products will be automatically delisted, similar to a default judgment. Upon receipt of the response, an evaluator independent of Amazon and each party is assigned to the issue, and each side is required to pay a $4000 fee, refundable to the winner. The patent holder gets three weeks to submit arguments. The sellers then have two weeks to respond, with the patent holder given one week to submit an optional reply. The evaluator then decides within two weeks, making only the determination if the sellers’ products likely infringe on the patent holder’s claim. It is noteworthy that the APEX evaluator does not make any determination on the validity of the claims in the patent at issue. If the evaluator decides in favor of the seller, the product stays on the platform; if not, the products are removed. There is no appeal process from the evaluator’s decision. The entire process takes fewer than three months, and at a price tag of $4000 per party, creates a fiscal barrier of a fraction of the cost of formal patent litigation.

This process is not, though, without its drawbacks. The patent holder wins a disproportionate amount in APEX proceedings, creating incentives to initiate the process without valid claims. Because the evaluator does not look at the validity of the asserted patent, the accused sellers can do nothing but play defense. In legal terms, they are without the affirmative defense of invalidity. They can’t win, they can only hope to survive. Further, the evaluation is not subject to formal rules like the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the Federal Rules of Evidence. The evaluators are hired for their expertise in the patent field, not for their investigative skills in the information provided. With no process of verification from Amazon, patent holders are submitting fraudulent information to obtain favorable judgments. With loose evidentiary rules, a low fiscal barrier, and no chance for the patent to be ruled invalid, the incentives all line up for patent holders to abuse this process, especially considering there is no chance for appeal. Should a competitor be cutting significantly into profits, $4000 is a very low risk for a possibly high reward of ejecting your competition from the market. Tortious interference claims stemming from the APEX process are already coming to light. 

Perhaps the most well-known legal spat involving Amazon’s patent evaluation process is the case of Tineco Intelligence Tech. Co. v. Bissell Inc. (W.D. Wash, 2022). Bissell is a US company that sells vacuums, and Tineco is a Chinese company that does the same. When Bissell initiated a UPNE proceeding, Tineco ignored it, leading to the automatic removal of its products. Tineco moved for a ruling in district court that Bissell’s patent claims were invalid and that their products did not infringe. Luckily, perhaps in part because of the sheer volume of business both entities do, Amazon deviated from its set UPNE/APEX process and reinstated Tineco’s listings before the District Court case finished, though U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) proceedings continued. This case and Amazon’s deviation are seen by some as the exception to the rule. Many entities are still using APEX as a hammer to bludgeon competition into settlements and licensing agreements, despite the tortious interference claims that sometimes follow.

Amazon’s APEX has the potential to be the first of many commercial patent dispute programs due to its budget-friendly, expedited decisions. Yet before it can be considered a system after which other businesses should model their systems, it must rebalance and overcome the issues outlined above. Although a large burden is placed on “neutral evaluators” hired by Amazon, these evaluators currently do not review the patent at issue for invalidity. To establish a more balanced approach and to disincentivize misuse of APEX by predatory sellers, invalidity must be considered. Even if such consideration drives up the required fee slightly, the trade-off would be worthwhile to promote fairness in the process. Amazon has three years of beta-testing under its belt with this system and thus has the data available to see where fraud and misuse are most prevalent. A thorough review of this data should lead to the tightening of its evidentiary standards throughout the process. Despite the name inviting such a pun, APEX must not be allowed to thrive as a predatory tool.

While barriers to justice should not be so high that patent holders may not assert their rights, the process should not be so favorable and easy that it inadvertently incentivizes abuse of the process. Through small tweaks, APEX can continue to serve patent holders’ rights without demanding the time and money that large-scale patent litigation requires.