Warrant for Amazon Echo records in murder case gets privacy advocates' attention

FILE - This July 29, 2015, file photo shows Amazon's Echo speaker, which responds to voice commands, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Privacy advocates are raising concern after the Bentonville (Arkansas) Police Department sought recordings made by a murder suspect's Amazon Echo, reports KATV-TV in Little Rock.

Victor Collins' body was found in November 2015 in a hot tub at the Bentonville home of James Andrew Bates. Bates told officers he invited Collins and some friends over to drink, according to a police report. Bates said he found Collins floating in the hot tub, and called 911.

When officers arrived, they found Collins' body cut and bruised, and found blood inside the hot tub water. The police report says a medical examiner looked at Collins' body, and said he was likely in a fight and he died from strangulation and drowning.

During the investigation, one officer noticed an Amazon Echo device on Bates' kitchen counter, next to the refrigerator, according to court records. A judge issued a search warrant for all Amazon's audio recordings and other records from the device during the period of time in question.

"The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the 'wake' command of 'Alexa' or 'Amazon,' and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the 'wake word' being issued, which is uploaded to's servers at a remote location," according to the warrant request.

Amazon turned over Bates' account information, but refused to turn over any recordings, according to Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith.

Smith told KATV-TV he is frustrated by Amazon's refusal.

"They're focused on their marketing, on making money and their bottom line," Smith said.

Smith said evidence on devices like the Amazon Echo and the iPhone could help prove suspects' guilt or innocence. Smith brought up the FBI's efforts to obtain information from a locked Apple device used in the 2015 San Bernardino attack.

"I'm not saying Amazon needs to go rat out people," Smith said. "You need a warrant and you need probable cause to get this information.

"Amazon needs to follow the law like every other company."

The Bentonville case has gotten national attention after published an article about it Tuesday morning.

"All of this should offer an important reminder that it's not always wise to blindly commit to smart devices, even if you're not planning criminal acts," Jacob Brogan wrote for Slate. "In the name of providing us with easy access to information, they're also collecting enormous amounts of information about is, information that can be put to surprising ends." quotes Bates' attorney as saying "You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances out quality of life against us."

Smith told KATV: "If we can search your house, your car and your bank account, I don't understand why we can't search this. The Echo is not protected from the warrant requirement."

Still, Smith said it's an open question as to whether his office will take Amazon to court over this warrant. Smith cited the length and difficult of the litigation, and expected Amazon would be willing to devote a lot of resources to protect the image of its product.

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