Amazon Resists Warrant for Echo Digital Assistant User Transcripts

Amazon turns over basic business records relating to one customer's Amazon Echo digital assistant, but declines to deliver voice records or transcripts.

Amazon Echo Warrant

It was one of those crimes that wouldn't necessarily be talked about in national news reports. A man's body was found floating in a hot tub behind a house in Bentonville, Ark.

Besides the regrettable loss of a life, there wasn't much remarkable about the crime, at least not until the investigation kicked into high gear the next day.

That was when detectives found a number of smart devices, including a Nest thermostat and a smart security system. Police also found an Amazon Echo device at the murder scene, which they seized.

Then detectives asked for and received a search warrant for the Echo and another for a cell phone belonging to James A. Bates, the home's owner, who was charged with second degree murder.

The Amazon Echo warrant also demanded all records, recordings or transcripts from Amazon's servers that may have come from the Echo in question. Amazon has turned over the normal business records relating to the Echo, but has refused to release those recordings or transcripts.

In a statement, Amazon has said, "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

At first look, this seems to be a situation similar to Apple's refusal to decrypt the contents of an iPhone used the mass terrorist killings in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015. In that case, the FBI eventually had to turn to a third party to access the phone's contents. But in fact, that may not be the case.

In the Arkansas case, investigators were able to download the memory contents of the Echo, which apparently contained a small amount of information. Investigators aren't saying what that information might be. But the Echo contains 256 megabytes of RAM, as revealed by iFixit when they tore down an Echo.

It's not clear why there's that much memory in the Echo, but considering that the device is primarily used as a wireless speaker that can draw content from the internet using WiFi, as well as from a mobile device using Bluetooth, the most likely explanation is for buffering, so that the Echo can stream uninterrupted music even in an area with poor signals.

But in this murder case the question is whether the Echo was recording whatever happened within listening range of the device. The next question is whether the Echo would have recorded anything useful to the investigation. The answer to both questions is probably not.

While the Echo is always listening to whatever goes on around it, it doesn't appear to be recording or streaming that information back to Amazon.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...