Should computerized virtual assistants enjoy the same constitutional protections that living, breathing humans do? Amazon thinks so, and it’s taking that position in regards to a request by law enforcement for the conversation history of one very important Alexa device. The company is seeking to have the requests thrown out entirely unless the police can prove that the information would be crucial to the investigation.
Police in Bentonville, Arkansas believe that a local man named James Bates killed Victor Collins in November of 2015. Collins’ body was discovered in Bates’ hot tub, which is pretty solid evidence as far as the court is concerned, but law enforcement wants to tie up as many loose ends as possible. To that end they’ve requested a whole bunch of information from Amazon in regards to Bates, including purchase history and account information, which the company has willingly obliged. However, police also requested the transcript of all communications Bates had with his Amazon Echo, and that’s where Amazon is drawing the line.
It’s Amazon’s stance that police officials haven’t made a sufficient case that the conversation history is crucial to the investigation. Amazon believes that an Alexa user’s queries fall under the First Amendment and as such the company should not be compelled to hand over the information unless it clearly relates to the case itself.
Amazon’s request to the court reveals that Bates’ requests and Alexa’s responses would be available on his smartphone, and that police could just as easily obtain the information from it instead. However, the phone in question, a Nexus P, is encrypted “at the chipset level” and police have thus far been unable to breach its security.