Siri, Google Home and Alexa: Can You Hear Me Now?


Siri, Google Home and Alexa: Can You Hear Me Now?

Michael R. Bosse

The facts

Let’s face it, we as a society are more connected than ever through our smart devices and the Internet of Things. With that connectedness comes a host of privacy concerns in our Brave New World of IoT. A closely watched criminal case broke yesterday in Arkansas involving the Amazon Echo, which triggers from its sleep mode by use of a “wake word” which for the Echo is “Alexa.” Most of you know this and you actually call the device “Alexa”: 

  • “Alexa: please order some pizza from Dominos.”
  • “Alexa: What channel is the Celtics game on?”
  • Alexa, how long will it take me to get to work given the current traffic?”

You get the picture, and perhaps you already have one of these devices in your home.  

So, here is the case that turned yesterday. In Bentonville, Arkansas, on November 21, 2015, James Bates invited Victor Collins and some others over to his home to watch football. Mr. Bates contends that he went to bed at 1 a.m. while others were drinking alcohol in his hot tub. Mr. Bates called the police hours later when he found Mr. Collins face down in the hot tub, dead.

Mr. Collins’ death was ruled homicide by strangulation, there was evidence of bruising on his face and a struggle, and blood appeared to have been cleaned up around and on the hot tub. Investigators found that Mr. Bates made several calls that failed to go through at the same time he claimed to be sleeping, but he told investigators that they were just “butt-dials.” The upshot:  Mr. Bates was arrested and charged with the murder of Mr. Collins, and Mr. Bates pleaded not guilty to the homicide charge.  

Here is the rub 

Mr. Bates, among his other devices, owns an Echo. Police confiscated it, and a search warranted issued for any data that might be found on the Echo. Last month, Amazon moved to quash the search warrant, contending that because the First Amendment protects not only the right to speak, but also the right to “receive information and ideas,” any audio that might be on the Echo should be protected by the First Amendment and not produced in response to the search warrant. Amazon also claimed that given the data, someone could use it to reconstruct the “sum of an individual’s private life,” and thus violated Mr. Bates’ privacy rights. Amazon argued that law enforcement should have to make a showing of relevancy and a compelling need for the information in order to overcome the First Amendment protection of the information.The problem from a Fourth Amendment perspective: like so much of our data nowadays, the audio recordings were not in Mr. Bates’ home at all. They were in the cloud, on Amazon servers.  

Things broke yesterday in the fight when the court in Arkansas signed a consent order stating that Mr. Bates had given permission to Amazon to turn over any data that it had from the Echo to law enforcement. Thus, Amazon’s motion was denied as moot in light of the consent from Mr. Bates. Mr. Bates provided the consent, his attorney said, because he is “innocent” of the charges. The upshot of this case? Given the way this legal fight has ended, the fight will be put off for another day about whether and under what circumstances Amazon, Apple or Google will have to fork over data to law enforcement pursuant to a search warrant for Alexa, Siri, or any of the other artificial intelligence beings that are being created.

In the meantime, whether its Siri telling you she can’t understand your question, or Alexa searching for the new song from Pitbull, the answer to the question “Can You Hear Me Now?” is an unqualified “Yes.”