“Alexa, Did He Do It?” Florida Police Search Smart Speaker Device History in Criminal Investigation

Authorities investigating a Broward County slaying secured a search warrant to access recording history on an Amazon Echo device present at the crime scene. A 43-year-old man has been arrested for the Hallandale Beach homicide of his 32-year-old girlfriend in mid-July. Police want to know whether the popular voice-controlled smart speakers at the home where she died may provide clues as to what happened, the Sun Sentinel reported. Broward criminal defense lawyers

Broward County criminal defense lawyers have been keenly attuned to police and prosecutors’ increasing reliance on evidence derived from new media and technology – from smartphones to drones – in criminal cases.

This is the latest example, and it raises some interesting legal questions about privacy and the extent to which authorities can access the details of conversations that happen in your own home or in personal messages.

The Amazon Echo device has been the subject of other criminal investigation search warrants in other states. WGCU News reports the devices have become a battleground in homicide investigations in both Arkansas and New Hampshire too. In both instances, Amazon fought against turning over the data, later conceding in one case after the defendant agreed to turn them over. Arkansas prosecutors dropped the murder charge citing reasonable doubt while the New Hampshire case only recently ended in mistrial.

Other platforms like Facebook have typically done the same when confronted with similar demands, citing user privacy concerns. These have been met with mixed success. It generally depends on the specificity of the request and what investigators can reasonably expect to extract. Courts have a responsibility to ensure these don’t become privacy-invading fishing expeditions. Requests that are overly-broad or inappropriate should be shut down immediately.

What Can Alexa Offer as a Criminal Case “Witness”? 

There are several legal and practical arguments against allowing criminal case investigators to access Alexa device data. (Alexa isn’t technically a “witness”; it’s a means to recorded data held by a third party company – Amazon, in this case.)

Although Alexa as a technological device is relatively new, laws on what kind of data police can obtain are fairly well-established, though subject to evolving. It is illegal in Florida for someone to place a recording device in your home or on your phone to record your conversations without your consent. So then it may come down to the contract the user has with the device company.

In a statement to the Sun Sentinel, an Amazon spokeswoman insists the devices aren’t used to record private conversations and that the company does not disclose users’ information – even in response to government demands for it – “unless legally required.” A search warrant or subpoena would be considered a legally binding and valid order to compel the production of such information – though such an order is not above challenging.

Practically speaking, Alexa is designed only to “wake” and begin recording when one’s “wake word” is used. The default wake word for these devices is “Alexa,” but it can be changed by the user. No audio sent or stored to the device cloud unless/until that wake word is uttered, and even then, only short bursts of data are recorded.  That means that unless someone in the vicinity said “Alexa,” the device wouldn’t reveal much at all anyway. The same is true if it was placed on mute mode.

But if, as occurred in the Hallandale Beach case, a judge finds probable cause to believe the records maintained by the device contains evidence of a crime, the data can be – and has been – ordered turned over.

Amazon may continue to fight these requests by government agencies in the interest of privacy, but Broward criminal defense attorneys will continue to fight them in the interest of our client’s rights.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Alexa, Can Police Access Your Recordings? Florida Criminal Case Raises Questions About Smartspeakers, Nov. 15, 2019, By Chris Remington, WGCU NPR News

More Blog Entries:

“Can I Be Charged Criminally for Things I Post on Social Media?”, Oct. 10, 2019, Broward Criminal Defense Lawyers Blog