Leland Chang Blog Post

Leland Chang

Information Privacy  Law

Professor Ira Rubinstein

March 21, 2017

Alexa – Amazon’s internet connected home assistant device, man’s new best friend or law enforcement’s greatest spy.

Prosecutors in Arkansas have issued a warrant against Amazon to hand over data Alexa may have gathered its owner James Bates, a murder suspect. Amazon refused and has filed a motion to quash the search warrant; in a statement they said it “will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

This case puts the spotlight on several interesting issues. First is the implications of “always on” machines and the data they gather. Amazon insists “always on” is a misnomer, because while Alexa is always listening for the programmed wake words to activate, prior to activation the inputs it receives are not uploaded to the cloud nor are they recorded. However, as technology advances and more microphones are put into more devices operated through the Internet of Things, it seems more likely data will leak through. Second is how this changes a consumer’s reasonable expectation of privacy, especially in the sanctity of one’s own home (which is under the purview of 4th amendment protection). Data is collected from physical conduct inside the house, but also collected and stored in the hands of a third party. Third is the precedent this case sets for digital rights. Amazon objects to the warrant that they deemed to be “overbroad”, but what then is the standard that prosecutors must meet? Technology companies, like Amazon, must learn to thread the needle between complying with legitimate warrants that will bear relevant evidence and protecting the data and rights of their consumers.

The Prosecutor intends to file a response to Amazon’s motion. Even though this case is about a murder, tech companies, privacy experts, and digital rights enthusiasts will be wise to follow closely


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