Could the Amazon Echo be a New Source of ESI?

This article was originally published on the Daily Record.

One of the coolest gadgets that made it down my chimney this Christmas was the Amazon Echo. You’re not familiar with the Echo? The Echo is billed as a personal digital assistant. Basically it’s a Bluetooth enabled speaker that is also connected to the Internet, but it’s much more than a speaker. Like the Siri functionality on the iPhone, a user can ask Echo questions. Instead of starting a query with “Siri” one would use the name “Alexa”. So for example:

  • Alexa, what’s the weather going to be tomorrow?
  • Alexa, make a to-do list and add write article for Daily Record.
  • Alexa, when was the last time the Bills made the playoffs?
  • Alexa, tell me a joke. No, the joke did not involve her repeating to me when the Bills last made the playoffs.

Those are some of the basic functions. If one really wanted to take advantage of all the Echo has to offer it could be connected to other appliances and devices in a house. According to Amazon’s website, “Alexa-enabled products work with devices such as lights, switches, thermostats, and more, that you can control using your voice. Ask Alexa to switch on a lamp, turn on the fan, dim the lights, or increase the temperature.” The Echo is just one more thing (or way to connect things) on the ever-growing list of devices associated with the Internet of Things (IoT).

After quizzing Alexa with a few dozen questions on myriad topics, my eDiscovery brain started kicking in. How long before we start reading about cases involving Alexa? What secrets does Alexa keep? Is she storing all the questions I ask her and if so, where?  It didn’t take long for my curiosity to be satisfied.

Alexa, eDiscovery and the Cloud

Two days after Christmas I read an article about a murder investigation where police were seeking information that may have been recorded and saved on the Echo, a device that was apparently in the home at the time of the alleged murder. Police in Bentonville Arkansas, requested that Amazon hand over any recordings stored on their servers for the defendant’s Echo account. It turns out that everything you ask Alexa is recorded and uploaded to the cloud, where it stays until deleted by the account holder.  Search history is also stored on the Alexa app.

It seemed like a long shot to me, but it is possible that something relevant to the case may have been recorded by Alexa and therefore was sitting on Amazon’s servers. If it did exist, the information would be akin to an Internet search and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time evidence of that nature has been sought or proved useful. Casey Anthony used her computer to search the Internet using the keyword “Chloroform”, evidence that was presented at her daughter’s murder trial.

But that was different. That information was found by a digital forensic examiner looking at a hard-drive from Anthony’s computer. Alexa’s secrets were in the cloud.

What did Amazon do to Access Evidence in the Cloud?

Amazon declined to give police any of the information stored on its servers, but it did hand over the defendant’s account details. Amazon said in a statement that it “will not release 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.”

Police were able to get some information directly from the speaker, but what were police really after? Based on my reading of a few articles, it appears they had a hunch, or hope, that Alexa may have recorded an argument or incident that occurred before the alleged murder or perhaps the murder itself.

Possible? Well, that’s not really how the device works. In order for the Echo to be activated it needs to hear its “wake” word, which happens to be “Alexa”. While the Echo is always listening, it’s not always recording. According to an article in USA Today, “[t]he Echo keeps less than 60 seconds of recorded sound in its storage buffer. As new sound is recorded, the old is erased. So there’s no audio record made of what went on in a room where an Echo sits. Only when the Echo hears its wake-up word does it begin sending a stream of audio to the cloud to be converted into text that the program can understand and act upon.” Did the police think the alleged murderer uttered, “Alexa, I am going to murder this person now!” I doubt it, but whatever the police may have been seeking it didn’t matter because Amazon didn’t budge.

Smart Devices and the Internet of Things

Alexa wasn’t the only smart device in the house. The defendant’s home was also equipped with a smart water meter that recorded 140 gallons of water being used between the hours of 1 and 3 AM on the night of the incident. Police claim that the defendant hosed down his patio and hot tub in order to hide evidence.

Regardless of Amazon’s refusal, this case in an example of what’s to come as we continue to see a proliferation of devices in the IoT. Smart devices in the home will certainly continue to rise as a source of valuable ESI. And yes, law enforcement may have a difficult time busting through the privacy wall to get cloud storage providers to relinquish customer data, but for every voice recording in the cloud there’s a leaky water meter.

Alexa, on my to-do list please mark as complete write article for Daily Record.

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