Your gadgets are listening, and the government can too
Growing popularity of voice activated technology in smartphones and home automation devices means that many Americans are never more than a few feet from a device capable of recording conversations they may assume are private. But a warrant recently obtained by police in Arkansas should serve as a reminder that Americans are willingly bugging their own homes.
Officers in Arkansas are currently hoping the evidence they glean from the recordings on one of Amazon’s popular Echo devices will give them a break in a Bentonville murder investigation.
The Amazon Echo is a popular home automation device which looks like a regular speaker but is always listening on standby for users to utter its wake words. The device, with the help of a virtual personal assistant named Alexa can deliver weather reports, cue a favorite song, dictate a recipe and even order pizza or make dinner reservations via voice commands.
The upside of the device is convenience; the downside is that users tether their phones and troves of personal information to the device and then allow it to listen in on their day-to-day conversations in the home.
When echo users wake the device by addressing “Alexa” directly, the device begins recording commands to save on Amazon’s servers for the purpose of improving its voice recognition capabilities.
The Arkansas investigators, in what may be the first case of its kind, have obtained a warrant for such information on the device of a man named James Andrew Bates. Bates is charged in the murder of Victor Collins, whom authorities say was found strangled and drowned in a hot tub at Bates’ residence.
Bates’ home, which is reportedly equipped with various smart devices, may turn out to be the lead witness against the defendant.
As reported by technology blog CNET:
[P]olice may be able to crack into the Echo, according to the warrant. Officers believe they can tap into the hardware on the smart speakers, which could “potentially include time stamps, audio files or other data.”
The investigation has focused on other smart devices as well. Officers seized Bates’ phone but were unable to break through his password, which only served to delay the investigation.
“Our agency now has the ability to utilize data extraction methods that negate the need for passcodes and efforts to search Victor and Bates’ devices will continue upon issuance of this warrant.”
Police also found a Nest thermostat, a Honeywell alarm system, wireless weather monitoring in the backyard and WeMo devices for lighting at the smart home crime scene.
Ultimately, it might have been information from a smart meter that proved to be the most useful. With every home in Bentonville hooked up to a smart meter that measures hourly electricity and water usage, police looked at the data and noticed Bates used an “excessive amount of water” during the alleged drowning.
Officers have also seized an iPhone 6S, a Macbook Pro, a PlayStation 4 and three tablets in the investigation.
Amazon, for its part, has called the warrants “overboard and otherwise inappropriate”— but investigators believe they should be able to pull information from the company’s devices without its help.
This mirrors the FBI’s use of a third party hacking service to break encryption on iPhone devices over the past year.
While it’s true that if the evidence proves Bates’ guilt, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, the increasing frequency of law enforcement investigations revolving around technology many Americans trust in their most private moments represents a new age in self-incrimination.
Most smart phones on the market today include voice recognition technology similar to Amazon’s Echo, always on and always listening for a command.
Google, the company behind search and personal assistant software found on Android devices, uses a recording function for voice data similar to Amazon’s. Ditto for Apple.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the nation are clamoring to use these smart technologies to their investigative benefit. And it makes sense considering a Pew Research report last year which concluded that 72 percent of Americans use smartphone technology on a daily basis.
And here’s the thing… Unless you paid careful attention to the terms and conditions you undoubtedly agreed to with any new technology in your home, you may not even know haw much information is out there.
Already we know that police usage of cell phone tracking technology, often without privacy oversight or proper warrants, is a growing problem throughout the nation.
Many privacy experts contend that outdated digital privacy laws coupled with a normalization of police agencies using other smart technologies in investigations are putting Americans on a fast track to become the victims of similarly intrusive surveillance within their own homes.
Here are a few steps you can take to better protect your privacy:
- Always read the fine print when activating new technology products so you understand what information your devices are gathering about you and who it can be shared with.
- Do some research about your existing devices. Don’t hesitate to call customer service numbers with direct questions about privacy policies.
- Many smartphones and other voice activated devices include options to shut the technology off if you aren’t comfortable with passive listening in on your daily conversations—use it.
- If you find yourself in a position where you believe your digital tracks could be used to incriminate you, contact a lawyer as soon as possible for advice. In many cases, experienced lawyers have contacts who know the ins and outs of legally and thoroughly eliminating digital information that could be used against you out of context.
If you’re interested in doing a digital privacy audit heading into the New Year, check out our Ultimate Privacy Guide (available with a free subscription at the top of the page) for more simple and effective strategies to keep your personal life personal.