Much has been made over the past year or two about "the Internet of things" - the trend of household items increasingly becoming connected to the Internet. We are now able to talk to an electronic device that will answer questions, turn on lights, turn up the heat, play music, provide a weather or news update, or tackle any number of other tasks.
It was only a matter of time before police turned to these smart devices to help solve crimes. Arkansas authorities recently asked for cooperation from Amazon, the e-commerce giant, in an investigation of a death that occurred in a private home in 2015. Police want to determine if a voice-activated smart device called an Echo, which was in the suspect's home at the time of the incident, contains recorded information that could help prove their case.
When household devices can 'listen'
Police seized the Echo from the home of suspect James Bates, who has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Victor Collins. According to Bates, the two men were watching football and drinking beer and vodka. They spent time in a hot tub at the home and Bates says he went to bed. Collins was found dead in the hot tub the next morning. A discovery hearing in the case is scheduled for March.
The Echo is an electronic device that connects to the Internet and can perform a multitude of tasks by accessing information through cloud computing. It "wakes" when a key word is used and can record audible voices, but its internal storage capacity is quite limited. News reports state that Amazon provided Arkansas authorities basic information about Bates' account with the company and purchase history, but it has declined to share additional information from its servers.
Amazon has not commented on the case specifically, but did release a statement: "Amazon 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."
Where does the right to privacy end?
The Bates case comes on the heels of a widely reported battle between Apple and federal investigators who wanted the technology company's assistance cracking into the data housed in the iPhone of one of the shooters in a 2015 San Bernardino, California mass shooting.
Privacy advocates have long warned about the infringement on personal rights as people connect more and more items to the Internet, including a wave of "always-on" household devices that can record and store audio. In the Bates case, investigators also allege that information from a smart water meter showing increased use of water in the middle of the night could be evidence of an effort to clean up the crime scene.
"We live in the world where we really haven't settled the law or the standard of care for companies that provide in-home devices like that," Nuala O'Connor told National Public Radio (NPR). "The standards of care - as companies have more and more really specific information about what goes on inside the home - has got to be higher and higher"
Cases like these will undoubtedly set boundaries for what information can be required from databases that are kept by companies such as Amazon and Apple.
As these legal questions are resolved, it reinforces the importance of enlisting the assistance of knowledgeable legal defense attorneys whenever you face criminal charges - or even before charges are filed. As O'Connor pointed out to NPR, A larger concern is what information government authorities are asking for behind closed doors, including for investigations into people who have not been charged with any crimes.