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Can your smart home be used against you in court?

On a November, 2015 morning in Bentonville, Arkansas, first responders discovered a corpse floating in a hot tub. The home’s resident, James Andrew Bates, told authorities he’d found the body of Victor Collins dead that morning. He’d gone to bed at 1 AM, while Collins and another friend stayed up drinking.

This past December, The Information reported that authorities had subpoenaed Amazon over the case. The police were considering Bates a suspect in what they suspected was a murder after signs of a struggle were found at the scene. They hoped his Echo might hold some insights into what happened the night before.

Amazon initially pushed back against the request, citing First Amendment protections, but ultimately conceded when Bates agreed to allow the information to be handed over to police.

While Amazon’s fight has been rendered moot, this case lays groundwork for some tough and important conversations to come, raising a slew of fascinating questions around the technologies. What do devices like the Echo or Google Home actually record and save? Have we, as consumers, effectively surrendered a reasonable right to privacy from corporations and the government by bringing such devices into our home?

“It’s like this perfect test case,” says Andrew Ferguson, a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia. “Alexa is only one of the smart devices in that guy’s house. I don’t know if all of them were on or recording, but if you were going to set up a hypothetical situation to decide if the internet of things could be used as an investigative tool, you’ve got this mysterious hot tub murder.”

 

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