Alexa, Play My Alibi: The Smart Home Gets Taken to Court

By WIRED Staff

Then, under that, I think it's child abuse. Under that, murder. And it goes down the line, to other civil cases. There's actually, interestingly enough, a lot of divorce cases involve Amazon Echo data, by the likelihood that you can maybe catch someone cheating or things like that, based on what the Amazon overheard. But they do have the ability to say yes or no. The most, I guess, high-profile case would be in 2016 there was a murder case in which police requested Amazon speaker data. And Amazon initially said no. They issued a very long, I think 90-page, explanation of why it was they didn't want to hand over that data. But they ultimately did release it because the defendant consented and said, similar to this case, "I don't think that there's anything in those files that would prove that I did anything wrong."

And so, can they say no? Yes, they can. It would never be easy though, because they're going up against these police departments. And they're going up against ... They would need a very steadfast justification for why the answer would be no.

I will say, though, Amazon does sometimes do partial responses. So maybe you ask for 10 different things, and Amazon gives you seven. Or four, or three. I'm not aware of cases, too many cases, where they outright reject and say no, but it is common for them to give partial responses. So maybe you'll get a little bit of the metadata but not the actual content of the voice recordings, or things like that.

MC: All right. Well, this is very fascinating, so far. We're going to take a break and then when we come back, we're going to talk more about smart home devices and what you should know about your own privacy.


MC: Hey, we're back. OK. So even if you aren't plotting any crimes, it's a good idea to be aware of just how much information your smart devices are gathering from you. That's why we're going to offer some tips here for how to keep your private life, well, more private.

Sidney, you spend a lot of time researching these devices and reporting on all the ways they are being used and exploited. I'm curious, what are your own thoughts about having a smart speaker in your home?

SF: Well, first and foremost, if you want a Bluetooth speaker, you can get one that isn't an always-on, listening device. There's a lot of different options out there, just from a consumer perspective. But also, I'd say that, when I think about smart devices, not just smart speakers or smart devices in general, I really think about this idea from Jonathan Zittrain. He's a Harvard professor who writes a lot about privacy, and he coined this phrase, intellectual debt. And he explained it as, when you buy something, you don't necessarily know how it works. So you go into debt, but eventually how it works will affect you, in some way. And it's like the bill coming due.

And that's how I think about all these devices. You buy them, not really paying attention to the privacy policy, not really paying attention to the types of data they collect, and whether or not you're OK with that data being collected. And you're like, "Oh, this is fine." But eventually, it will affect you in some way that you may or may not even realize. So there's a debt coming due.

And so I think about the cumulative effect of buying all these different devices and not actually knowing whether or not that data goes to the police, whether or not that data goes to the insurance company, to see if you actually are healthy or not. And so, I just think not necessarily about … I don't think it's useful to pinpoint any individual specific devices, quote-unquote "the worst." But for people who like to rack up these gadgets, I would ask them, "How much do you actually know about this stuff? And what's going to happen when you realize, oh, all of these or some of these or one of these collects my data or shares it?" Or "There's some type of aspects of it that I find unacceptable."