You may recall hearing a bizarre news story earlier this year: Amazon Echo, a voice device, was used as evidence in a trial against James Bates, an Arkansas man accused of murdering his friend, Victor Collins. The friends were enjoying a night of booze and football that ended in Bates’ hot tub. Bates claims he went to bed around 1 AM and found Collins floating face down in the hot tub the next morning. As if the true crime aspect of this story isn’t intriguing enough, the sci-fi component that indicates our devices are keeping tabs enough tabs on us that they could convict us of murder was enough to send chills down my spine when I first heard about this case.
Although it can easily be argued that Collins simply had too much to drink (after all, his blood alcohol level at the time of his death was .32, four times the legal limit in Kansas) and his death was accidental, investigators noted there were signs of a struggle, with injuries to both men as well as a broken shot glass and dried blood found inside the home. The patio had also been hosed down before police arrived at the scene, indicating Bates could be hiding something.
The Echo and other voice technologies work by constantly listening for what is called the “wake word”; the Echo comes standard with the wake word “Alexa” which alerts the device you are asking something of it. In this case, Bates voluntarily handed over the recordings after being advised to do so by his attorney, Kathleen Zellner (who you may remember as Steve Avery’s attorney in the chilling Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer”) . However, the controversy with this was the argument that it is in violation of the First Amendment and Bates’ privacy. Even more strange, the Echo wasn’t the only smart device involved in this case; they were also able to retrieve potentially incriminating information from Bates’ water meter. The water meter showed an increase in water use in the middle of the night, again indicating Bates may have been trying to cover something up.
However, the case was dropped by prosecutors this week, declaring it “nolle prosequi,” meaning the evidence in the case could provide more than one reasonable explanation for what happened that night. If nothing else comes out of this case, we may want to start asking ourselves how much of a threat our smart devices are to our privacy. You have to admit, this whole story has an eerie likeness to a George Orwell novel. Personally, I still don’t completely trust my own Amazon Echo.