Hey Alexa, Give Evidence: Alexa could potentially be a witness in a murder trial

December 5, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The possibility of eavesdropping virtual assistants being used as witnesses in trials raise important questions concerning privacy and consent.

What does this mean?

Sylvia Galva Crespo was murdered in her house in Florida, last July. Her husband presented the murder as a mysterious accident but he was soon charged with second-degree murder.

Investigators now try to understand if there was any chance that the couple’s “Alexa”, the virtual assistant developed by Amazon, was active at any time during the incident or during the fight of the couple the night before, which is believed to have incited the murder. If Alexa was indeed active, this means that it could potentially eavesdrop and have recorded something relevant. 

As such, Alexa could become a witness in the murder trial.

What's the big picture effect?

The case might seem rather straightforward; if Alexa was somehow activated during the commission of a crime, she could record evidence, which should obviously be used in the same way that mobile recordings or DNA tracks are employed. Nevertheless, the case of Alexa is not directly comparable with such traditional evidence, due to the controversial privacy-related questions that arise. 

Three years ago, a similar case came up, where an Arkansas man was accused of murder. Prosecutors pushed Amazon to turn over data from an Echo found in the house where the body was found. Amazon initially resisted the request, claiming that the First Amendment’s free speech protection applies to information gathered and sent by the device; as a result, Amazon argues, the police should jump through several legal hoops before the company is required to release your data. Amazon later conceded and complied, yet the challenge to privacy was highlighted.

Such a challenge becomes even more significant, due to consent-related issues, since Alexa seems to record even when not deliberately activated by the user. This is because the technology is still deeply imperfect; in more than one out of 10 transcripts analysed by one of Bloomberg’s sources, Alexa woke up accidentally. Even when Alexa is not awake, it is still on and is constantly listening, albeit not always transmitting. Apparently, there are no technical obstacles to enabling dormant devices to, for example, record audios.

Increasingly, millions of people are putting digital assistants in their lives without being aware of the potential havoc this Trojan horse could bring. Further, the legal issues surrounding this new technology remain unresolved and so the technology is open to abuse until privacy is better safeguarded by the law.

Report written by Vasiliki Poula

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