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Continuing questions over police collection of Amazon Echo data

| Mar 10, 2017 | Criminal Appeals |

In recent months, we have written about an interesting and perhaps precedent-setting murder investigation. At the heart of the case are questions about personal technology, privacy rights and the ethics of private companies cooperating in overly broad demands for customer data.

The case being investigated is the alleged strangling death of an Arkansas man, found dead in his friend’s hot tub. The victim’s friend and owner of the property has been charged with the murder. During the course of the investigation, the suspect’s Amazon Echo was seized, and law enforcement agencies served Amazon with a warrant to turn over any voice recordings or electronic data collected around the approximate time of the victim’s death.

Amazon took an important stand in its refusal to cooperate with the warrant, which the company criticized as overly broad. Statements made by the agencies requesting the data in the first place suggested that authorities had little idea what – if any – evidence they would find by searching the device’s collected data.

Earlier this week, Amazon ultimately agreed to release the data, but only because the murder suspect consented to the disclosure of data from his device. He steadfastly maintains that he is innocent and has nothing to hide.

While the release of evidence in this case is no longer in dispute, the underlying legal principle is still far from resolved. A criminal and constitutional law professor asked about this murder case noted that, “in my mind, as well as the minds of a lot of other privacy experts, the Echo has been a ticking constitutional time bomb, along with a lot of other features of smart homes and the internet of things.”

Cases like this will only become more common as Americans’ personal technology devices continue to collect more and more data. There needs to be a clear distinction between when this data can and cannot be searched by law enforcement agencies.

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