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 Amazon.com, 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.