Who’s listening? Privacy questions echo across the Internet of Things

While new technology improves our lives, it also could be used against us

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Could Amazon’s Alexa be a tattletale? Yes, as could any internet-connected device in your home, we were all reminded this week.

News outlets lit up on Tuesday with news that Amazon had been served with a search warrant in a murder case, as detectives in Bentonville, Arkansas, want to know what Alexa heard in the early morning hours of Nov. 22, 2015—when Victor Collins was found dead in a hot tub behind a home after an Arkansas Razorbacks football game.

Alexa, you are probably aware, is the personification of Amazon’s Echo device. She is among the more popular Internet of Things gadgets banging down our doors trying to “break” into our homes. Echo listens constantly, using an array of seven microphones, ready to hear commands from her owner.

Related video: Why companies don’t need to forfeit privacy to make profits

Police in Arkansas want to know what, if anything, Alexa might have overheard in what authorities allege was a violent murder that November night. Amazon, according to the search warrant, has not completely complied with this request, which initially was served in December 2015, and then re-served later.

Wake word starts recording

Police probably won’t get much from Alexa. She listens all the time, but only records and transmits conversations after a “wake word” is issued—usually, “ALEXA.” Echo gadgets hear the wake word, then transmit commands back to Amazon for language processing.

Those recording are stored by Amazon and can be viewed and deleted at any time by users (by visiting http://amazon.com/mycd). Police who heard the recording probably would only obtain a list of boring commands like, “Tell me the weather” or “Order me more toilet paper.”

There is a small possibility that Amazon may know something more, however—and one can see why an enterprising detective would want to bring in Alexa for an “interview.”

As Echo users know, Alexa occasionally is awakened by mistake, and rudely shoves her way into conversations. There is a small chance that something useful to police might have been recorded by accident. (The chance is truly small, because Alexa is trained to block out background noise, which presumably would even include the sound of a gruesome murder).

Slim chance of gaining information

There’s an even smaller chance that a suspect might have said out loud, “Alexa … how do I murder someone in a hot tub?” That’s why this case is probably much ado about nothing. While Amazon has supplied some data to police, according to reports, the firm is refusing to supply the Alexa chatter. But that’s probably not a big deal.

Here’s the big deal: The suspect, James Bates, apparently was a connected home fan, and had several Internet of Things devices in his “smart” home. He had a Nest thermometer, a WeMo device for his garage door, and motion sensors around his home. Of greatest interest, he also had a smart water meter.

Local reports indicate police have allegedly determined that an unusual amount of water was used in the house late that night, perhaps to clean the victim’s blood from the crime scene. Bates’ “smart” home is so smart that it likely will testify against him in court.

Let me be clear: If data helps put a murderer in jail, that’s great. I have no problem with evidence that’s obtained through proper channels, when a judge agrees that a warrant is deserved.

Security holes open

But this case should be a stark reminder of the reality that is arriving fast, thanks to the Internet of Things: With George Jetson comes George Orwell. Just as everything you type in a keyboard could one day be used in a court of law against you, so too could anything you do or say inside a smart home.

And remember, courts aren’t just for bad guys. Smart home data—just like grocery store loyalty card data—will find its way into civil court, where it will help decide child custody in divorce cases. (“Your honor, look at how often my ex-husband comes home late at night!”)

There’s just no stopping this, outside a broad new privacy law that deals with this brave new future. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, you probably didn’t follow last year’s admission by Samsung that its Smart TVs were listening in on intimate living room conversations. Or stories this year about Internet of Toys gadgets that record and upload your children’s chatter—and make it relatively easy for strangers to listen in, too.

It’s sad, because all these clever new technologies have great potential to enhance our lives. But as often happens, we race forward with capabilities before considering the unintended consequences.

More stories related to IoT devices:
As the Internet of Things expands, so do the risks
How to keep your appliances from exposing your data
Why more attacks leveraging the Internet of Things are inevitable