On In Science & Technology

Amazon's Echo Hears You Talking, And the Police Want To Listen

As soon as the 'always-on' voice activated home systems starting hitting the market, it was only a matter of time before someone wanted to access mountains of data for surveillance. That time is now here, but we're still a long way from the 'Big Brother' style of monitoring by a supreme government. There is a case where this technology is used with a specific murder suspect in Arkansas. Unless you have any bodies buried in your back yard, you should probably be safe at the moment!

Amazon's Echo is a smart speaker that contains a microphone connected to the voice controlled intelligent personal assistant service Alexa - Amazon's version of Apple's Siri. The system 'wakes-up' upon hearing its name and can follow commands to play music, set alarms and write to-do lists. However, once the system hears its 'wake-word', the microphone records and transmits whatever it hears to the servers and saves a record of everything it hears.

Everything the device hears is not limited to voice commands specifically directed at the Echo. It picks up and saves casual conversations, and these conversations are saved to the server. The recordings are the recordings that were demanded by a court in Benson County, Arkansas. The search warrant issued request any recordings picked up by the suspect's system over the space of two days in November 2016.

The warrant also maintains that it is feasible the 'always-on' system has locally saved recordings of everything that it hears, regardless of being 'woken up' or not. The police in Arkansas have requested that all data recorded by the suspect's electronic assistant be turned over to aid the investigation. Amazon has currently only surrendered his subscriber account information and hasn't provided any of the voice recordings or transmissions.

In a statement regarding customer privacy, Amazon revealed the company "will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served". Whether the company considers a search warrant valid and binding was not revealed. However, Amazon refused to turn over any of the Echo's data to authorities while citing privacy concerns.

Consumers have already filled their homes with over 5 million devices; meaning that the Amazon databases are receiving constant streams of data. As it currently stands, it is likely that your own voice-activated personal assistant is not transmitting anything to anyone you wouldn't want to hear. But who knows what this holds for the future, as the United States government has requested Apple unlock another case suspect's phone to reveal information. Big companies are currently refusing to release personal information, and it would appear that the battle for state control is currently going the way of the public but... for how much longer?