Amazon Fights Prosecutors’ Request for Echo Audio

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – Amazon is challenging a request from Arkansas prosecutors who want audio evidence from a murder defendant’s Echo, saying information stored on the smart speaker is protected by the First Amendment and customer privacy rights.

Amazon said in court documents filed this month that it “seeks to protect the privacy rights of its customers” and has asked a state judge to block prosecutors from any content information that the Echo device belonging to James Andrew Bates may hold.

“Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the court finds that the state has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials,” according to a Feb. 17 motion filed in Benton County Circuit Court.

Bates, 32, of Bentonville, has denied that he had anything to do with the murder of Victor Collins, a friend who had been drinking at Bates’ residence before he was found face down in the hot tub on Nov. 22, 2015.

Collins’ death was ruled a homicide and evidence of a struggle and clean-up of the crime scene led authorities to charge Bates with first-degree murder last February.

The Amazon Echo, a cylindrical wireless speaker and voice command device, is designed to respond to the “wake” word, either “Alexa” or “Amazon” and records what the user says to their cloud service. Prosecutors have sought access to Bates’ Echo as part of their investigation.

“It is believed that these records are retained by and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation,” an August search warrant says.

In its first legal response in the case, Amazon argued that Alexa’s audio recordings are protected by the First Amendment and that state prosecutors have not demonstrated a need for it to violate customers’ privacy rights.

The company said that prosecutors must first demonstrate a “compelling need for the information sought.”

“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,” according to the filing.

The company also wants the court to review any recordings before handing them over to prosecutors to determine that they are relevant to the case.

An Amazon spokeswoman has declined to comment on the Bentonville case specifically, but said in a statement that the company “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,” the company said.

A hearing on Amazon’s motion to quash the search warrant is set for March 8 in Bentonville.

Bates is currently out on $350,000 bail.

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