Alexa and Uber Take the Stand: Your Data as a Witness
Posted on Tuesday, January 9th, 2018 at 3:30 pm
Silicon Valley’s amazing technology has made our lives easier. Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa can tell us the weather, play our favorite music on command, and add grocery items to our shopping lists. With the tap of a button, we can catch a ride using the Uber app. Countless other products offer similar conveniences and provide greater simplicity to our lives. However, this added convenience comes with strings attached.
By using these products, we generate vast amounts of data. These giant tech companies store that information to improve their products (and their targeted advertising). This data is increasingly entering the crosshairs of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes. By putting enough pieces of your digital footprint together, law enforcement can generate a pretty complete picture of a person’s life.
Law enforcement is relying more and more on digital evidence because of how enlightening (or incriminating) this information can be. Warrants for a cell phone search are commonplace in today’s world, but as Silicon Valley develops newer products, law enforcement sees additional opportunities to gather evidence.
Recently, police in Arkansas turned their sights on an Amazon Echo smart speaker found in a murder suspect’s home. The Amazon Echo has a built-in microphone that is always listening, waiting for the user to issue a command. According to Amazon, the speaker only starts recording once it hears “Alexa.” Amazon stores the recorded commands or questions that follow in a database to improve its voice-recognition accuracy.
Police issued Amazon a search warrant for any data the speaker may have recorded on the night of the murder. Since a judge signed off on the warrant, Amazon became the last line of defense against turning over the data. Amazon refused to grant the request, citing the privacy concerns of its customers.
The murder suspect ultimately granted Amazon his consent to provide the data, moving the resolution of this legal showdown to another day. While Amazon was likely more concerned about future customer’s fear of losing their privacy, the takeaway is that this data may be easily obtainable if the company possessing it complies with the request.
The focus of this case was past data already recorded and stored, but something to consider is the possibility of tapping into the Amazon Echo’s microphone in real time. Law enforcement can obtain judicial authorization for a wiretap of a suspect’s electronic communications. Any internet-connected smart device with a microphone can theoretically be remotely activated without the user knowing, creating a bugging device. On a scarier note, hackers have demonstrated the ability to do this with ease. The average citizen probably has nothing to worry about, but public figures, politicians, journalists, etc. may want to weigh whether the convenience of these devices is worth the privacy risks they pose.
Another recent target of law enforcement has been data generated by Uber riders and drivers. Just as in the Amazon case, a judge approved the subpoena for these records. The likely trend will be that judges grant these requests with regularity. One can imagine these records being requested in a divorce or custody proceeding, revealing a spouse’s habitual Uber rides from the bar or to his or her paramour’s house.
Technology will continue to progress and tech companies will continue to vacuum up more and more data about our daily lives. It’s possible we may never be able to delete that data, or only with varying degrees of difficulty. When enjoying the conveniences of Silicon Valley technology, it must always be assumed a detailed trail will be left behind.