On 17 February 2017, Amazon.com filed a motion to quash a Bentonville Police Department search warrant relating to an investigation into the November 2015 murder of Arkansas resident Victor Collins.
TechCrunch reported that in late 2016, an Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo device became central to that investigation. Police in Bentonville said that the Echo and its voice-activated capabilities might be used as evidence, seeking access to recordings and transcripts between defendant James Bates and the device.
Amazon.com contested the warrant, arguing that compliance would set a potentially dangerous precedent:
Late last year, it was revealed that Amazon’s Echo had become a key piece of evidence in an on-going murder investigation in Arkansas dating back to 2015, as police sought access to voice recordings from the smart home assistant. Now the tech giant is firing back, arguing that both user commands and Alexa’s responses constitute protected speech.
In a lengthy filing issued late last week, Amazon is pushing back against requests, arguing that while it has already complied with requests pertaining to user purchase history, “[gi]iven 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 material.”
The company explains that, while it intends not to obstruct the investigation, releasing the records to governing bodies would violate consumer privacy rights, citing a ruling the company was involved in back in 2010, “[t]he fear of government tracking and censoring one’s reading, listening and viewing choices chills the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
In its motion, Amazon.com argued that the state of Arkansas was required to demonstrate a "heightened showing of relevance" to justify the release of Bates' Echo data. Police seized the Echo device in a search of Bates' residence (where Collins died), and Amazon.com honored initial requests by police to preserve the data. However, the retailer objected to subsequent requests.
A substantial portion of the motion had to do with to Amazon.com's position that First Amendment protections apply to Alexa-related content, citing the landmark Supreme Court Riley v. California case, as well as widespread media focus on the potential privacy dangers of voice-activated technology:
Indeed, the publicity generated by this search warrant in particular has led to numerous articles raising concerns about the use of Alexa-enabled devices and other in-home intelligent personal assistants, and in particular whether use of such devices exposes customers’ audio recordings and information requests to government review. Such government demands inevitably chill users from exercising their First Amendment rights to seek and receive information and expressive content in the privacy of their own home, conduct which lies at the core of the Constitution. To guard against such a chilling effect, this Court should require the State to make a prima facie showing that it has a compelling need for any recordings that were created as a result of interactions with the Echo device, and that the State’s request bears a sufficient nexus to the underlying investigation.
A Benton County prosecutor told local media that the office plans to file a response to Amazon.com's motion.