27 September 2023

Silent witness? How police may soon want access to your smart speaker

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Anthony Caruana* says a US court has ordered Amazon to provide all recordings made by an Amazon Echo to help solve a homicide case.

Photo: Kat Wilcox

A court case in the United States has the attention of privacy experts and advocates.

A judge in North Hampshire has ordered Amazon to provide any and all recordings made by an Amazon Echo in the home of one of the victims in a double homicide.

The Echo was in the home of one the victims and the police have a strong suspect in their sights — the partner of one of the victims.

And while a 911 call was made it’s possible the Echo recorded all or part of the incident — anyone with an Echo knows this is possible given Alexa can be accidentally triggered.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that an Alexa device recorded and shared a conversation without permission.

And anyone with an Echo device knows that it can activate even when you don’t invoke the Alexa incantation.

In this particular case, it’s possible the Echo device in question didn’t record anything.

Or it recorded some or all of the alleged crimes.

Such is the uncertainty of the way these devices work.

And it’s likely this is the first time a court, anywhere in the world, has ordered a company to hand over recordings like these.

Amazon does encrypt all recordings and promises to handle them with care.

And with tech companies under increasing pressure by law enforcement and governments to hand data over, Amazon will be a test case of how such data will be handled and handed over.

Much of the focus on this case is, rightly, on solving the terrible crime.

But there are broader issues to consider.

For example, could someone subpoena recordings in a business trial.

Or a divorce?

This is one of the new challenges the courts will face as more supposedly private conversations are accidentally captured by smart speakers at home.

For now, I’d suggest disabling smart speakers when you don’t need them on and being careful about where they are placed.

Until the tech improves and we can guarantee that they won’t record unexpectedly they are a privacy issue waiting to happen.

* Anthony Caruana is an Australian writer and journalist. He tweets at @Anthony_Caruana.

This article first appeared at www.lifehacker.com.au.

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