Amazon is fighting part of a search warrant that would require the online retail giant to hand over audio recordings and other records for an Echo belonging to the suspect in a 2015 murder case in Arkansas, arguing that dialog between users and Alexa-powered devices is covered by the First Amendment.
In December, Bentonville, Ark., police issued the warrant demanding records for an Echo device belonging to James Andrew Bates, who is scheduled to go on trial for murder this year after Victor Collins was found dead in Bates’ hot tub in November 2015.
Since Alexa and other digital assistants listen for “wake up words,” police hope that someone involved in the situation either intentionally or accidentally activated the device, creating an audio record of that moment. Amazon said in its filing that transcripts and recordings of Alexa dialog are stored on Amazon servers outside of Arkansas.
Amazon argued in a court filing last week that Alexa dialog falls under the First Amendment and should be subject to a “heightened standard” of evidence. Amazon wants the court to “quash” the search warrant unless police and the prosecution can first prove that the Alexa recordings are crucial to the case.
Amazon said courts have in the past used the heightened standard when requests were made for Amazon customer information. Lawyers for the online retail giant also cited the investigation of former President Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky in their arguments.
Amazon’s legal team argued that protecting “expressive content” such as music choices, podcasts, audio books and other information from government scrutiny is an important part of the First Amendment.
“Amazon does not seek to obstruct any lawful investigation, but rather seeks to protect the privacy rights of its customers when the government is seeking their data from Amazon, especially when that data may include expressive content protected by the First Amendment,” Amazon said in court documents.
Amazon pointed out that police also sought access to Bates’ smartphone, which was encrypted. Had police been able to access it, Amazon said in its filing, police it may have been able to get the suspect’s Alexa history if the Alexa app was installed on the phone.
Amazon said it has partially complied with the search warrant by giving police access to Bates’ purchase history and subscriber information.
A hearing on Amazon’s motion to quash the search warrant is set for March 8.
Police have used other Internet of Things devices to gather evidence in the case. A connected water meter showed that 140 gallons of water were used between 1 and 3 a.m. the night of the alleged murder. Police claim that Bates hosed down his patio and hot tub in order to hide evidence.
This case is the latest battle between law enforcement and big tech companies over data privacy. Apple’s refusal to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist during the attack in San Bernardino, Calif. in 2015 is perhaps the most high-profile example of this tug-of-war between tech giants and governments. Apple argued that decrypting the phone’s data and breaking into it would weaken security for all users. Apple and the FBI were heading towards a trial earlier this year until a third party emerged to help the FBI successfully hack the phone.
Microsoft has also found itself in several disputes with the U.S. Department of Justice over user privacy. One involves emails police demanded in a 2013 search warrant for a drug-trafficking investigation. Those files were stored at one of Microsoft’s data centers in Ireland, so Microsoft refused to turn over the emails, arguing they fall outside the investigators’ jurisdiction. Last year, Microsoft also challenged a provision of U.S. law that lets government agencies prevent tech companies from informing customers when investigators seek access to emails and other cloud data.