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Amazon Echo Murder Case Renews Privacy Questions Prompted By Our Digital Footprints


Police in Arkansas have asked Amazon for data from an Echo device they believe could provide evidence in a murder investigation. So far, Amazon has not complied. The Echo is the personal assistant who answers to the name of Alexa. She'll play music and answer simple questions on voice command, but that technology also records what you say and sends that recording to a server. Whether or not this particular Echo has any useful information is not known, but Alexa, Siri and Google's Home assistant are in a lot of houses these days. Who knows what they hear and might record? And who else might hear the most intimate sounds of your household? Scott Stein is a senior editor at CNET. Thanks very much for being with us.

SCOTT STEIN: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why do the police want the Echo? What do they think is on there?

STEIN: I think they're hoping for any information, you know? It sounds like, from reports, they may not necessarily be clear on what information could be available, but hoping for something that might be overheard. Of course, devices like the Echo don't record all the time. They do record voice snippets when you make a request, and those are recorded, but they're short. And maybe they were hoping for something to be revealed there.

SIMON: As I understand it, it's sort of like you have to say, Siri, and ask a question. I mean, a potential murderer would have to say, Alexa, I'm going to commit a crime now. Or am I naive?

STEIN: Yes, no, I mean, it would have to be something specific or maybe something like a cryptic clue that might be set to a particular time where you could hear something in the background, perhaps. You know, it's - you do - you have to bring up by command. And then that snippet is only going to be as long as the request goes. And you can see on the device, when the blue light basically stops churning, that's when the recording stops. And you can even go back in your settings in your app. Not a lot of people realize that you can play back those audio clips any time.

SIMON: What about the next generation of devices? What changes might there be that could also change your concerns?

STEIN: Well, you know, the concern would be that the artificial intelligence is going to be more advanced and potentially their listening capabilities will be more advanced. I also think it's going to be very interesting when you look at cameras because, you know, there are a lot of advances in camera technology. You could start having cameras that start recognizing and interpreting all sorts of things in your environment that might be related to what you use for security or start being worked into operating systems. So that's another level that's going to be intriguing. Technology like augmented reality, which we've heard a little bit about, that is going to start utilizing more intelligent and now cameras that analyze the environment in ways we might not expect.

SIMON: Mr. Stein, forgive me, but you're - I mean, you're a professional in this world.


SIMON: Does all of this...

STEIN: I guess - yeah, I am. I am.

SIMON: Does all this stuff ever make you a little - feel a little creepy?

STEIN: It makes me feel very creepy. You know, I sometimes feel like a guinea pig with this technology - or often. And it also concerns me a lot. I think about the fuzzy line of where the privacy of data is out there in the cloud. The question is, will governments or other people be able to access data that you have on request? Will companies comply? How does that work? How does it work in a criminal investigation? Where's that line - because that's - that's the part that is a little mysterious. There is an element of how much of an open world are we living in and how much of that should we be comfortable with being out there? But to some degree, we've already been doing that.

SIMON: Alexa, tell Mr. Stein we're - we're glad he was our guest. I guess she's not listening. Thanks very much, Scott Stein, senior editor at CNET.

STEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.