We have seen the wonders of the latest trend that is the home assistant devices, with the technology virtually taking over all electric appliances making our lives easier than ever before. But it also has raised some pressing concerns on the point of privacy and legal boundaries concerning the device, as one of the devices, inadvertently, becomes the key to solving a murder case.
The case involves the victim Victor Collins strangled and drowned by the suspect, James Andrew Bates, in a hot tub in Bentonville, Arkansas. Mr. Bates reported to the police that he had invited Collins and two other friends, Owen McDonald and Sean Henry, to watch a football game. But he left McDonald and the victim to hang out in his hot tub and himself decided to go to bed at about 1 a.m.
Bates’ claims that when he woke up several hours later, he found Collins dead in the hot tub with his face down in the water. However, McDonald claims that he left Bates and Collins around 12:30 a.m.; a story that was confirmed by McDonald’s wife.
Bates’ phone records suggest that he was texting a woman throughout the evening, called his dad several times along with other friends (including McDonald) and the Flying Fish restaurant. Bates claims that none of the calls went through and all of them were accidental butt dials.
James was charged with first-degree murder in November of 2015, but the case was going nowhere until the police identified that Bates had several internet-connected devices in his home, that included a Nest thermostat and a Honeywell alarm system.
But they have identified his Amazon Echo as the key witness, which the police say could have controlled the streaming of music being wirelessly transmitted throughout the night of suspected murder using Echo’s assistant Alexa.
It is not clear how much data police could get from the device, but the fact that Alexa is always listening through its seven built-in microphones might be of some help. The device doesn’t respond until you say the “wake word,” such as asking for the weather or to play some music, but before it does so, it also listens to the fraction of a second of audio before the wake word.
This, the police hopes, could be vital in getting a lead on the mystery; although up till now Amazon has declined to hand over any audio or information in the case. The company says it will not be releasing 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.”
The particular Echo device is currently in custody of the police as material evidence, and adding to the clues is another smart device installed in the home. The home’s smart water device, as per the court’s records, show that Bates used up 140 gallons of water between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on the night of the unfortunate incident, which is certainly dubious.
It will now be interesting to see how much these IoT devices could help, or be turned against us, legally. This might be a first-of-its-kind case where the legal positions of the information collected by smart devices are in question, but surely this won’t be the last one.