Christine Sullivan’s last moments may have been captured by her Amazon Echo.
A stray word might have activated the smart speaker as she called out the name of her attacker — either exonerating or providing a strong piece of evidence against Timothy Verrill, the man now charged with stabbing Sullivan and Jenna Pellegrini to death on Jan. 27, 2017, in Sullivan’s Farmington home.
Or, in the hours before her death, Sullivan might have used her Echo to play music, make sensitive purchases, send an insulting message about a local politician, or do any number of private things of no particular importance to her case.
Either way, state police and the Attorney General’s office want to know what Alexa, the female-voiced artificial intelligence that speaks from Amazon’s Echo smart speakers, heard that January night.
The proper police procedures for searching a home or briefcase have been hammered out through decades of case law. But the question of how easy it should be for police to access the vast troves of data collected by the so-called internet of things — devices like Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, smart toasters, and other household objects equipped with sensors and connected to networks — is far from settled law.
“Devices that record private conversations and network activity, sometimes even inadvertently and without the users’ knowledge, should not be treated as run-of-the-mill repositories of evidence,” ACLU attorney Brett Max Kaufman wrote in an email. “And the companies that users trust to operate these devices … must carefully scrutinize law-enforcement requests for this kind of data to ensure that their users’ rights are not trampled in the government’s effort to exploit a new technology.”
With tech companies under intense scrutiny for the ways they protect user data, the Farmington double murder could prove an important test case for what kind of witness Alexa, or your refrigerator, could be.
Amazon has not filed anything in response to a Strafford County Superior Court judge’s order that it produce two days’ worth of recordings. But its brief statement on the matter, and previous actions in similar situations, indicate it might not be ready to turn over Sullivan’s recordings so easily.
“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” the company said in a statement. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
In 2015, Arkansas police also sought Amazon Echo recordings while trying to solve a murder. In response, the company filed a 91-page memorandum arguing that police should have to meet a higher burden of proof to get a warrant for the recordings than they would to search a house, for example. The higher standard would include proving that there is no less intrusive way to obtain the information and establishing that there is a “sufficient nexus” between the device and the crime.
Owners’ interactions with their smart speakers constitute protected free speech, the company wrote, and government requests to sift through those conversations would “chill users from exercising their First Amendment rights to seek and receive information and expressive content in the privacy of their own home.”
The legal question wasn’t settled in the Arkansas case, believed to be the first in the country involving smart speaker recordings. The defendant, who owned the Echo, agreed to turn the recordings over to prosecutors, who eventually dropped the murder charge against him.
“I find it hard to believe that the court system is going to adopt a policy, though, that would prevent this type of information from ever being turned over,” said David O’Brien, a senior researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “However, looking at it from Amazon’s point of view, they probably feel that meeting the heightened burden isn’t that hard.”
It’s the question of whether police must first exhaust every other less-intrusive means of obtaining the information they want that courts will really have to grapple with, he said.
A person’s privacy rights typically disappear when they die, so it’s possible that Amazon will not choose Sullivan’s murder as the venue to fight its battle. But Amazon seems to want to establish privacy for more than just its customers.
In the Arkansas case, the company’s lawyers didn’t just argue that police needed to meet a higher burden of proof to obtain a warrant for the recordings of the Echo’s owner. Amazon’s lawyers claimed that the speech of Alexa, an artificial intelligence program, was also protected by the First Amendment. If a court ever ruled that way it could bring implications for the artificial intelligence industry.
“If AI ever does evolve to a point where it is actually the ‘author’ of messages it creates rather than any human programmer — something on which futurists disagree vigorously — might it make sense to say the free speech rights belong to the AI?” Toni Massaro, a law professor at the University of Arizona, wrote in an email. She and her colleagues have published several papers exploring the possibility of free speech rights for artificial intelligence.
“We conclude it is not inconceivable given how the courts approach free speech rights now,” she added.
In the nearer term, as lawyers for tech companies have to respond to more situations like the Farmington double murder, they may adapt the way they store recordings and data collected by smart devices.
Right now, Amazon Echo owners can use a phone app to look up a transcript of every interaction they’ve had with their device and delete portions of it.
Mana Azarmi, a policy counsel for the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, said it’s possible that companies will try to avoid storing the data themselves, or at all, and consumers worried about their privacy should push them to do so.
“Consumers should know what controls they have over these devices,” she said. “But also, there should be a demand for companies — knowing that these devices in the home are recording all kinds of sensitive information — that they should practice data minimization. There’s currently no obligation on them to do that.”