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In 2015 a Mr. James Bates was found to have a dead man in his hot tub. James also owned an Amazon Echo smart speaker. Prosecutors are trying to compel Amazon to release data collected from the speaker that they feel may help prove James’ guilt. Amazon briefly explained how the device worked in a brief statement it released that it does not record conversations or the ambient noise but rather it is looking to hear its name: “Alexa.” The device then tries to transcribe noises it hears into text and if one of those transcriptions matches its name, it will activate. If there is some sort of log or long term record of these transcriptions (what the prosecutors are hoping for) Amazon explains that it would be useless since it will attempt to transcribe all sounds, including sounds from the TV, or the loud stereo from a car passing by, or the dog barking or the kids playing outside and it doesn’t know the difference between them. We don’t know what this data actually looks like and if someone talking on the television could cause Alexa to think there is a person in another room, then that information could be misinterpreted by prosecutors as activity or a conversation in what may or may not be an empty house.
These types of devices and how they work are not completely understood by the general public. We all just more or less assume the worst that they are probably recording everything we say and it’s transmitting it somewhere. But because we don’t feel we have anything to hide many people don’t care if they are being recorded or not. It is because of this general assumption that the prosecutors are after this information, they assume it will be a goldmine of recordings. So when Amazon tries to briefly explain that this is not how the device works, the prosecutors don’t necessarily believe them. Perhaps Amazon is telling the truth, perhaps not, but in the end it doesn’t matter because this is just another example of how our individual privacy is being eroded and the general public doesn’t seem to care too much about it because again… “they have nothing to hide.”
At this point in the case we don’t know if James is guilty or innocent. Of course the idea of an innocent man going to prison because of a “smart device” providing data that was interpreted by a prosecutor’s expert should scare anyone. But perhaps we should consider a scenario where a guilty man would be let free because of this same data. What if he was your neighbor?
*The reality is that if the data exists, it will be used against you.*
Of course all this controversy about a device that seemingly records audio has overshadowed another “smart device” that could be just as open to be misrepresented. The home’s Smart Meter recorded that a lot of water was used the morning after the murder and prosecutors are arguing this is evidence that James was trying to clean up after the murder. But the defense argued that the time stamp was off by 12 hours and that the water usage corresponds with filling the hot tub the day prior.
As our society marches forward and more and more analog devices are turning digital, more and more data is created and the expectation of privacy or rather the definition of what privacy means changes with it. Overall who you are, what you do, when and maybe even how you do something will be a line of data somewhere. Answering the question of “why” or proving your intentions will remain to be something left to interpretation. But the more data there is, the easier it will be for someone to construct a very plausible story that someone will want to believe regardless of the truth because the story fits the data.