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Are Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo and Echo Dot protected by the First Amendment? (Amazon Photo)

Amazon has dropped its motion to protect audio recordings and other records for an Echo belonging to the suspect in a 2015 murder case in Arkansas.

Amazon had argued that data from the Alexa-powered devices should be protected under the First Amendment, but then last week the suspect, James Andrew Bates, agreed to voluntarily hand over the information on his Echo. Amazon dropped its “motion to quash” a search warrant that included Echo data Monday.

In December, Bentonville, Ark., police issued a warrant demanding records for an Echo device belonging to 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 motion that transcripts and recordings of Alexa dialog are stored on Amazon servers outside of Arkansas.

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.

While the conflict over data from Amazon’s Echo devices has been solved in this case, the question of whether this information should be protected under the First Amendment has not been answered. It may come up again in future cases as another front in the battle between big tech companies and law enforcement 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.

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