Does Alexa Kiss and Tell? Technology v. Privacy

“Alexa, play Beyonce.” “Alexa, what is the playing at the Southpoint cinemas?” “Alexa, how many cups are in a liter?” These commands and others posed to Alexa, a voice activated service created by Amazon can be easily become a little slice of the space-aged Jetson’s smart home in your daily world. But is Alexa a spy? Is there a record of what is said? Is this seemingly private “interaction” not so private and why do I care?

In the pending murder case of James Bates of Bentonville, Arkansas, the question of whether statements of Mr. Bates were recorded and could be used as evidence used against him in his pending murder case is at issue. Mr. Bates had an Alexa voice activated system in his home at the time Victor Collins’ body was found in Mr. Bates’ hot tub. Mr. Bates proffered explanations for how this occurred which didn’t jive with the physical evidence. Prosecutors served a warrant on Amazon to obtain any recordings made by Alexa and stored by Amazon which would aid in the prosecution’s case-in-chief or provide impeachment against Mr. Bates. If the warrant is not quashed, would there be anything incriminating to discover? The answer is that there are recordings made and preserved by Amazon which could be used to defeat or support Mr. Bates’ version of the facts.

What is Alexa, exactly? Alexa is an intelligent voice control service which in this case was connected to a small tower called Echo which is a Bluetooth speaker with a seven-piece microphone array. Alexa is described as a “passive listening device” which means that Alexa listens but does not record anything until she hears the activation word or wake word “Alexa”. Once the word “Alexa” is said, a small amount of audio content preceding the wake word and all content thereafter is streamed to Amazon’s network of connected computers where it is processed and stored. The audio record then lives in Amazon’s storage or Cloud until it is the subject of a subpoena or warrant or until you delete it.

In the Bates case, Alexa could have recorded evidence in the following ways: (1) all voice commands made to Alexa by Mr. Bates or anyone in his home would be recorded. (2) conversations between persons inside Mr. Bates’ home would be recorded if they were simultaneous to an Alexa voice command. (3) If the command required a significant period of time to achieve compliance such as, “Alexa, tell me when 20 minutes elapses” could result in all conversations occurring in the room being recorded until the Alexa task is completed.

Obviously any command or other function requested by Mr. Bates or the victim such as calendaring an event, purchasing an item, or linking up with another smart home service which conflicts with the defense’s version of the timeline of occurrences is problematic. As smart home and intelligent assistants functions assume a larger role in our lives be aware that a record is stored and even if you request deletion, there is no realistic way to ensure it is completed.

The default activation word is “Alexa.”
“With far-field voice recognition, Echo can hear you ask a question from any direction—even while playing music.” (Amazon website)
For the complete list of Alexa commands see: