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Police Request Amazon Echo Recordings For Homicide Investigation (cnet.com) 168

Tulsa_Time quotes a report from CNET: Amazon's Echo and Echo Dot are in millions of homes now, with holiday sales more than quadrupling from 2015. Always listening for its wake word, the breakthrough smart speakers boast seven microphones waiting to take and record your commands. Now, Arkansas police are hoping an Echo found at a murder scene in Bentonville can aid their investigation. [First reported by The Information, investigators filed search warrants to Amazon, requesting any recordings between November 21 and November 22, 2015, from James A. Bates, who was charged with murder after a man was strangled in a hot tub. While investigating, police noticed the Echo in the kitchen and pointed out that the music playing in the home could have been voice activated through the device. While the Echo records only after hearing the wake word, police are hoping that ambient noise or background chatter could have accidentally triggered the device, leading to some more clues. Amazon has not sent any recordings to the officers but did provide Bates' account information to authorities, according to court documents. The retailer giant said it doesn't release customer information without a "valid and binding legal demand." "Amazon objects to over-broad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course," the company said in a statement. Even without Amazon's help, police may be able to crack into the Echo, according to the warrant. Officers believe they can tap into the hardware on the smart speakers, which could "potentially include time stamps, audio files or other data."] Police also found a Nest thermostat, a Honeywell alarm system, wireless weather monitoring in the backyard and WeMo devices for lighting at the smart home crime scene. Officers have also seized an iPhone 6S, a Macbook Pro, a PlayStation 4 and three tablets in the investigation.
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Police Request Amazon Echo Recordings For Homicide Investigation

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  • Bugs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @06:27PM (#53562483)

    People intentionally bugging their own homes and paying a corporation for the privilege to do so.

    • Re:Bugs (Score:5, Informative)

      by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @06:39PM (#53562573)

      There are multiple self hosted solutions. Any old Mac has this for at least a decade. (Our old Snow Leopard Mini has it).

      Jasper [github.io] and Lucida [github.com].

    • Re:Bugs (Score:5, Insightful)

      by chispito ( 1870390 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @07:08PM (#53562743)
      Audio is only uploaded once the wake word is used. As it exclusively uses your home wifi, it is easy to test for and monitor this, unlike the phone you likely carry in your pocket.

      Because when you say this

      People intentionally bugging their own homes and paying a corporation for the privilege to do so.

      I read this

      I am irrationally scared of an Echo but not by the phone in my pocket.

      • Re:Bugs (Score:4, Insightful)

        by PraiseBob ( 1923958 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @07:35PM (#53562899)
        Do police regularly request cellular phone companies to provide recordings of ambient audio recorded by cellphones? In this example, the police DO treat an Echo differently from a cell phone, and the DO expect it to have stored audio that might aid their investigation, because unlike a cell phone, the echo records everything when active.

        Law enforcement treats the objects differently, so seems perfectly rational for consumers to notice the difference.
        • In this example, the police DO treat an Echo differently from a cell phone

          Well the police are actually very consistent in all of this. They regularly request things that don't exist and aren't possible. It would be interesting how this would stand up in court given that asking Siri where to hide a body used to be something people did for shits and giggles.

          • It would be interesting how this would stand up in court given that asking Siri where to hide a body used to be something people did for shits and giggles.

            Bayesian statistics could help: If you ask Siri that question when no family member has just been murdered, it is likely a joke. Otherwise, there is a conditional probability that it is not.

        • Do police regularly request cellular phone companies to provide recordings of ambient audio recorded by cellphones?

          Irrelevant. This is not about how stupid the police are, but about what Amazon records. They do not record "ambient audio". The device itself only listens for the "wake word", which is "Alexa" by default. Only the sentence directly after that wake word is recorded and transmitted, and this is relatively easy to verify.

          Being paranoid about Echo and not your cellphone is irrational.

          • And after the neural network has analysed it and extracted the command, the raw audio data may well be ditched other than the command it recognised with a success/error response code. There may be no recordings available for the police at all.

            • Re: Bugs (Score:4, Interesting)

              by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @10:39PM (#53563757)

              And after the neural network has analysed it and extracted the command, the raw audio data may well be ditched other than the command it recognised with a success/error response code.

              I don't think anything is kept locally, but I don't think all the data is ditched on the server. If I say "Alexa, play some music" it will play something I like, such as Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings. But if my daughter says the same thing, it will play something she likes, such as Bruno Mars. So it is obviously saving enough info to recognize the voice and preferences of individual family members.

            • Re: Bugs (Score:3, Informative)

              by MrPeach ( 43671 )

              I worked for Nuance, and they kept *all* post keyword phrases on their server. At least on the project I was working on. Whether they do this with their smart phone apps I really don't know. And whether Amazon does the same I really can't say, unless Amazon it's actually using Nuance...

              • by trevc ( 1471197 )
                So are you saying that after somebody purchases and installs an Echo, from the first time they utter the word Alexa it records everything until you unplug it? What did you do at Nuance, clean the toilets?
              • Audio data, or just a log of the voice recognition output? Those are 2 very different things.

        • Re:Bugs (Score:4, Insightful)

          by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @08:25PM (#53563153)

          Do police regularly request cellular phone companies to provide recordings of ambient audio recorded by cellphones? In this example, the police DO treat an Echo differently from a cell phone, and the DO expect it to have stored audio that might aid their investigation, because unlike a cell phone, the echo records everything when active.

          Law enforcement treats the objects differently, so seems perfectly rational for consumers to notice the difference.

          How would you know what the police do with cell phones? Law enforcement even hides whether or not they use a stingray at all, and there is very little information about what the devices are and what they are capable of - maybe they really can remotely turn on your phone's microphone and record what you're saying? And all of these secrecy comes not just with the Justice Department's blessing, but at the outright request of the Justice department.

          ...The documents also discuss the possibility of flashing a phone’s firmware “so that you can intercept conversations using a suspect’s cell phone as a bug...

          https://www.wired.com/2015/10/... [wired.com]

          • maybe they really can remotely turn on your phone's microphone and record what you're saying?

            Maybe? That's been happening for over 10 years. It's possible even with the phone turned off.

            https://yro.slashdot.org/story... [slashdot.org]

            Makes me wonder if this is why so few smartphones let you remove the battery.

            • dunno, but it is why my house has one room with no cell signal.
              It was by happy accident, but one I don't care to correct.

        • Do police regularly request cellular phone companies to provide recordings of ambient audio recorded by cellphones?

          I expect once the police realize there is nothing there, they will not regularly make this type of request, either.

        • Re:Bugs (Score:4, Funny)

          by p0p0 ( 1841106 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @08:39PM (#53563233)
          Why do you assume that because they are requesting the info means that Amazon has it? The police can subpoena me for the identity of JFK's real killer and I won't be able to tell them no matter how firmly they ask.

          The Association wouldn't allow me to say anyway. That's what the brain-chip was for.
        • by Kiuas ( 1084567 )

          and the DO expect it to have stored audio that might aid their investigation

          The summary says:

          While the Echo records only after hearing the wake word, police are hoping that ambient noise or background chatter could have accidentally triggered the device, leading to some more clues.

          So no, they're not expecting it to have anything on it, they're just checking to make sure in case it was accidentally activated.

          To me, this is no different than them making sure the background noise of a recorded call doesn't con

      • While you can't easily prove your phone ISN'T sending data, you can certainly prove when it IS sending data.

        Simply take out the SIM card, turn on WiFi, and monitor the connections. I'd imagine many apps/hacks/vulnerabilities aren't designed to automatically disable if the cellular radio is off. So that'd logically leave you with ones that are, and ones that depend specifically on a cellular modem. (Fun fact: Cellular modems can actually have root file access to your phone, an "Red Flag!"-level vulnerability

    • device.. and many of those consider it a status symbol. Why are you surprised? Personally, I'm just disgusted.

      I even know people who know better buying garbage like Amazon Echo. It saddens and sickens me to see shit like this without any regard whatsoever to the consequences of the death of privacy and thus security and free speech.

      • Privacy is out the window.

        I write about this shit a lot and it's similar to the "War on Piracy" in that when crap is digitized, it's essentially in the public domain.

        My fucking car rats me out via a service I use. My phone does. My desktop and all my tablets do, too.

        I get made when I buy shit at Walmart, via receipts and security cameras.

        There ain't a goddam thing that's going to change all that, so we have only two choices:

        A.) Get over it.

        B.) Get used to it.

      • device.. and many of those consider it a status symbol. Why are you surprised? Personally, I'm just disgusted.

        I even know people who know better buying garbage like Amazon Echo. It saddens and sickens me to see shit like this without any regard whatsoever to the consequences of the death of privacy and thus security and free speech.

        Do you have a Samsung HDTV? It's a tracker and they keep the info received forever the ToS reads, while it's for your benefit and they meant it for that reason, They keep a record of every word said, action you make and viewing habits, for voice activated, gestures and targeted ads.

        I've read their ToS my Samsung is my computer monitor it doesn't connect to the Internet and I've never created an account for it, it had built in webcam I'd of taped it as I do all the cams that come this way.

        Twice in the past

    • yes, I notice you use a personal computer too.

      capturing and recording all that data as you watch porn and jack off.

      I'm scared of my pc for that reason, I better surf up some good jacking porn to calm me down.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Officers have also seized an iPhone 6S, a Macbook Pro, a PlayStation 4 and three tablets in the investigation.

    They took the PS4? Really? WTF do they think they'll get from that? Me thinks some officer wasn't able to afford a PS4 for their kid even on boxing week.

    • Someone in command said "Grab everything" and blind compliance is less risk then thinking. Especially if the boss is tech illiterate...
      • We have a system of supposed checks n balances, and a proper Search Warrant in a murder investigation. I am not sure what anyone is complaining about (no, I am not saying you are complaining). The whole "Grab everything" excuse is acceptable here, in this case. It may not be worthy in other cases, but in this one, I have no problem with.

      • by Calydor ( 739835 )

        In this day and age the warrant likely says "Grab anything electronic, we'll sort it at the evidence cage."

  • by IMightB ( 533307 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @06:28PM (#53562491) Journal

    Color me right, I never would've though that this would happen. this is why I won't have this sort of device in my home. Soon, they'll asking for all sorts of info...

    • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @06:33PM (#53562527)

      Oh just don't indulge in thoughtcrime and everything will be doubleplusgood.

    • by Elfich47 ( 703900 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @06:40PM (#53562577)
      I expect there to be a follow up story in the next couple of weeks: Cops vexxed by fact that amazon isn't recording everything and try to force amazon to release "secret recordings" they feel that amazon should have.
      • by zlives ( 2009072 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @06:46PM (#53562609)

        did i miss the amazon denial of recordings?

        • Amazon only records several seconds after the wake word. Other than that the device just sits there dumb waiting for the wake word. So there isn't going to be much chance that there is an audio recording of the murder occurring.

          If the echo actually recorded everything in its hearing range and sent it up to the mother ship you would see the packet traffic, there would be a significant drag on your bandwidth and if you are charged by the megabyte your billing would jump through the roof the moment it was tu
          • by zlives ( 2009072 )

            sorry didn't mean all audio, maybe just the pertinent audio around the keyword. does amazon store that info perpetually?

            all audio would definitely be much more traceable.

            • If you activate the Echo with the key word, the command you give it is store indefintiely- unless you request for a data deletion (from the echo app).
          • by Will_Malverson ( 105796 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @07:30PM (#53562869) Journal

            LPT: If you're being murdered, tell Alexa.

            Alexa: My brother in law Jerry is here and has a knife and is stabbing me! Ow!

          • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @08:05PM (#53563061) Journal

            The suspect said he went to bed at 1:00 AM with the4 victim alive, then woke up at 8:30 to find him dead. The water meter indicates the drowning occurred between 1:00 AM and 3:00 AM.

            ANY recording of the suspect's voice between 1:00 AM and 8:30 would probably indicate that the suspect is lying. Even if he checked the weather forecast at 4:00 that would indicate he wasn't asleep as claimed.

              On the other hand, if records or witness testimony indicates that the habitually suspect uses the Echo several times per hour and he did NOT use it between 1:00 and 8:30, that would be consistent with his claim that he was asleep, somewhat corroborating his story.

            • by sjames ( 1099 )

              Oddly, even if he DID speak to Alexa, it wouldn't mean much. Some people talk in their sleep and later wake with no memory of it.

              • Depends where the Echo is, if it's in the bedroom, then your point applies, if it's in the kitchen or living rooms, less so.

          • If the echo actually recorded everything in its hearing range and sent it up to the mother ship you would see the packet traffic, there would be a significant drag on your bandwidth and if you are charged by the megabyte your billing would jump through the roof the moment it was turned on (assuming something like 1 meg/minute of audio would give 1440 megs per day in usage).

            Voice codec traditionally used by cell phones and VoIP average on the order of 1k/sec. This is 60k/minute, 3.6 mb/hr, 86 mb/day or 2.5 gb/month. It wouldn't be noticed by most broadband subscribers. This not counting deployment of silence detection or significantly more complex codecs enabling you to do many times better than 86mb/day. Combined with batch operation that sent a week or more at a time users could be left completely clueless without reverse engineering/persistent packet capture.

            This isn't t

            • by zlives ( 2009072 )

              my assumption is that if a packet capture saw continued stream even when nothing should be sent, some one would have noticed it by now.

          • 1 meg per minute? Even only using GSM would give about 96K per minute, and there are far more worthy codecs for this kind of application.
        • Did anyone ask?

          One thing I did miss is all the evidence of the device constantly streaming data to foreign servers instead of just triggering on a wake word locally and then recording the rest just like Siri and Google.

      • by E-Lad ( 1262 )

        No idea why the cops would even need to ask Amazon. All they need to do to find them is look in the dungeons below a particular pizza joint in Washington DC.

    • by shubus ( 1382007 )
      Well I saw this coming. First it was those Samsung smart TV's listening and forwarding a vast amount of personal data to their severs even when supposedly disabled. Now we've got Amazon doing basically the same thing. I won't have these gadgets in my home. If you value your privacy, you won't either. That said, I still filter all intern traffic through pfSense and block any potential anything suspicious.
      • Me too. Which is why that Windows VM I occasionally use keeps popping up with "No Internet" when the Internet is fine. Just no Microsoft until I turn it on.
      • Read Amazon's privacy statement on the echo. You can request that all of the audio data collected on your account be deleted. Even easier-use the Alexa app to delete all of your audio content.

        And before you ask - why don't they keep it anyway and just say "yup we're deleting it"? Because if the trust that had to be built up for people to agree to have this device in their house is violated (ex employee shows logs of all data being retained against users wishes), people will throw the devices out in a hear
    • by waspleg ( 316038 )

      You face a bigger problem with proliferation. There's no way to hide when everyone else is doing it. Just ask Facebook.

    • Color me right, I never would've though that this would happen. this is why I won't have this sort of device in my home. Soon, they'll asking for all sorts of info...

      They ask for all sorts of info anyway, even when the device doesn't store it. Not having an Amazon Echo won't stop the police asking for very stupid things if you are a murder suspect.

      • Not having an Amazon Echo won't stop the police asking for very stupid things if you are a murder suspect.

        Why is it stupid to see a device that is designed to send audio across the net and ask for any audio that it might have sent across the net? Especially when they are trying to solve a murder.

        Not too long ago people would have thought it was stupid for law enforcement to ask for cell phone position data for lost people from the carriers, especially if the lost person had a cell phone and could call out for help in the first place. But cell phone position data is becoming the main resource for search and res

        • Why is it stupid to see a device that is designed to send audio across the net and ask for any audio that it might have sent across the net? Especially when they are trying to solve a murder.

          Depends on what they are asking for. If they know that the person said "Alexia, where should I hide the body." Then yes. If not then they are stupid.

          Not too long ago people would have thought it was stupid for law enforcement to ask for cell phone position data for lost people from the carriers, especially if the lost person had a cell phone and could call out for help in the first place.

          Err no, no one ever thought this was stupid. It was known from the very earliest mobile phone implementations that carriers knew where the phones were.

          On the flip side here it looks like "A microphone, clearly it records everything so let's get a warrant for it" which is absurd and stupid.

          • Depends on what they are asking for. If they know that the person said "Alexia, where should I hide the body." Then yes. If not then they are stupid.

            How do they know, without checking?

            All of the arguments I've seen here are boiling down to 'it's stupid.' I don't think so. I've had Siri trigger while listening to audiobooks or podcasts that haven't said anything I'd interpret as 'hey Siri.' It's not out of the realms of possibility that something might have gotten triggered, and an incredibly small chance

            • It's not out of the realms of possibility that something might have gotten triggered

              Shit police are relying on this kind of blind hope? Man law enforcement is dead in this country.

              • If by 'blind hope,' you mean 'tracking down all possible leads, then sure.

                And really, what does this cost the police? They send a request to Amazon saying 'please send any recordings that happen to exist for this account for this timeframe,' and Amazon sends back either a) any recordings that happen to exist, or b) a note saying that there aren't any.

                I really fail to see the problem here.

                • And really, what does this cost the police?

                  Nothing. And what thegarbz is forgetting, and I almost forgot about, is that the alleged killer is saying he was asleep during the time of the murder. And he's forgetting that Alexa does record when it is spoken to.

                  It is clearly possible that the killer made a request of Alexa during the time he claims he was asleep. Once you have a time-saving convenience tool you are likely to use it out of force of habit. Killers are stupid enough to google for info about how to do it right even when there is a browse

          • Depends on what they are asking for. If they know that the person said "Alexia, where should I hide the body." Then yes. If not then they are stupid.

            No.

            Err no, no one ever thought this was stupid.

            Err, yes, some people did.

            It was known from the very earliest mobile phone implementations that carriers knew where the phones were.

            First, no, not to the accuracy that they currently are, second, most people think the phone actually has to have a GPS turned on for this to happen, and third, early AMPS services did not need to have the location accuracy that current LTE services do. (LTE data rates actually adjust based on distance to the device.) This information you claim was ubiquitous actually wasn't. Users didn't then, and most still don't, know anything about this. To the vast majority of users these

  • From the summary:

    Police also found a Nest thermostat, a Honeywell alarm system, wireless weather monitoring in the backyard and WeMo devices for lighting at the smart home crime scene. Officers have also seized an iPhone 6S, a Macbook Pro, a PlayStation 4 and three tablets in the investigation.

    All those gadgets, but this guy didn't have a security camera?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Ultimately, it might have been information from a smart meter that proved to be the most useful. With every home in Bentonville hooked up to a smart meter that measures hourly electricity and water usage, police looked at the data and noticed Bates used an "excessive amount of water" during the alleged drowning.

    Pure genius.

    • I guess the shower in the Bate's motel room just kept running after the stabbing, probably with that shrieky music in the background.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Seems a pretty specific search warrant. A one day window of any recordings made at a homicide scene. Not exactly what I'd consider a fishing expedition. Asking for info because maybe someone was thinking of something illegal sometime in the last week would be rather broad, even overly broad. One day at one scene where a crime definitely occurred? Hell no, that's plenty specific and justified. Doesn't mean Amazon can help. If the mikes off its off, no evidence to offer.

  • I hate to say I told you so but I did tell you so. so...yeah, there it is.
    • Told us what? The police asking for something that doesn't exist has been a given for many years. They seem to be clueless as to how the Echo works. ... kind of like you.

  • I'm not one to traffic in conspiracy theories, but Bentonville, Arkansas is where Walmart's corporate headquarters are located.

    Not that they have an axe to grind with Amazon or anything.

  • That cinches it. Next time I plan to murder someone in my home I'm turning off my Amazon Echo beforehand.
    • by Bongo ( 13261 )

      "Just one more thing....'

      Columbo plots so often centred on him learning about a new gadget and that it was in an odd state at the time. I think Columbo would do just fine today :)

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Tuesday December 27, 2016 @08:28PM (#53563173)
    From TFAs:

    Bates told police he went to bed at 1 a.m. after he, Collins and another man drank alcohol in his hot tub. Bates said he called police at 9:30 a.m. when he found Collins' body.

    Bates' lawyer said a pair of cancelled calls around 1 a.m. and a series of short or cancelled calls around 4 a.m. on Bates' phone were mistakes.

    As for Mr. Bates, court records suggest the device prosecutors got more from wasn't the Alexa but the home's smart water meter. It showed that someone used 140 gallons of water between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. at Mr. Bates' house, a much heavier than usual amount.

    So basically the guy's alibi might have held up if (1) he hadn't used his phone after he claimed he went to sleep, and (2) the water meter didn't show significant activity in the house after he claimed he went to sleep (police think he was busy washing away any evidence).

  • Just don't say Hey Siri, Alexa, Playstation, or OK Google when you're drowning someone in the bathtub and you're probably good to go.
    • by vux984 ( 928602 )

      'ok google' sounds enough like the noises one makes while drowning that maybe it activated on the victims struggles. :p

  • I refer you to my previous comment [slashdot.org] on this theme and the ridiculous posts which fail to debunk the always-listening = spying theme by claiming to know what proprietary software does. Not only are such claims ridiculous on their face, but even if the spying were handled locally, it's trivially easy to record, compress, and store data from the device either uploading it with other data when the user expects something to be uploaded or buffer the spying fruit until a later time. And there's nothing stopping interesting background information from being captured too. The purpose of the captured data is subjective—a tracker owner may have intended to use the device to do one thing, but the background audio/video reveals something of interest in another context. The solution, of course, is to grant computer owners as much control over their computers as they can have by having all computers run nothing but free software.

  • Maybe I'm missing something, but this doesn't seem like how I'd design or build this thing.

    First of all, there's no reason to store, even for a few seconds, anything before you detect the hotword to wake up. Next, the device does need to record the next bunch of time and forward it to Amazon for processing. But once the audio is processed, and the command detected, what can be gained from storing the raw audio? it would take a fair amount of storage space to keep the audio from every device for long periods

    • What you're saying is very plausible speculation, but it's speculation. Neither you nor I nor the police actually know there isn't a scrap of evidence to be found there. This is a murder investigation, and the police are following up unlikely possibilities in the hope that something might turn up. The search warrant is adequately specific by Fourth Amendment standards. Why do people think there's a problem with this?

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