Could Amazon’s Echo be an alibi in this murder case?
Amazon found itself embroiled in an Arkansas murder case this week, handing over data that could potentially acquit a murder suspect. James Bates was charged with the murder of his friend Victor Collins, who was found dead in the former’s hot tub in November 2015. But the suspect reckons his Echo device might just be able to decode the mystery, potentially acquitting him in the process.
Amazon has hitherto been adamant that customer privacy would not be compromised, issuing a statement saying, “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.” After Bates consented for the potentially pivotal data to be handed in, the company relented to the will of the US police force and submitted the information last Friday.
Amazon’s Echo device launched in 2014, marketed as a smart home tool that responds to users’ verbal commands. It can, for example, recite emails aloud, play music, and even be used to turn on your bedroom lights. Pursuit of justice did not feature on its roster of tasks… until now. The device perpetually anticipates commands, meaning it often captures miscellaneous fragments of audio. The data from these recordings is, of course, sent duly along to Amazon’s servers.
Witnesses at the Victor Collins crime scene revealed that music had been playing throughout the evening, meaning that Alexa would have been awaiting the command ‘Alexa, stop’, to silence it. As it turns out, nothing can silence Alexa, as evidenced by the criminal justice professionals employing the device as a key piece of audio evidence.
Bates, meanwhile, maintains that he was asleep during the time the murder took place, and hopes that Alexa’s data will provide exonerating evidence proving his innocence. It’s a concept not unlike the stories you hear about dogs alerting people to their beloved owner’s heart attack or stroke. A smart home device saving its owner from false imprisonment, or convicting a killer for murdering his friend: the 21st century’s answer to man’s best friend, or just a creepy bastion of increasingly invasive justice?
Only time – and the Amazon Echo – will tell of Bates’ fate. In the meantime, at least Charlie Brooker’s not running out of raw material for the next series of Black Mirror.
Header image: Amazon