Could Your "Smart House" be Called as a Trial Witness?

In-home devices that connect to the Internet, often with convenient features that allow off-site commands, alerts, and owner-preference settings, create what are colloquially called smart houses.

"Alexa, raise your right hand." The problem is, Alexa has no hands or any other human feature. You know Alexa—that's the name used by Amazon for its virtual personal assistant, most frequently invoked on its Echo in-home smart speaker. Alexa may not have a face, but the program is a potential witness to a murder in Arkansas.

What is a "Smart House?"

In-home devices that connect to the Internet, often with convenient features that allow off-site commands, alerts, and owner-preference settings, create what are colloquially called smart houses. Smart TVs, thermostats, alarms, baby monitors, and lighting systems are all available to home-owners. A recent addition is the "smart speaker," such as Amazon's Echo device. Smart speakers are essentially voice-activated personal assistants that sit on your counter. Echo, for example, comes with the Alexa smart assistant installed. With smart devices, the owner can issue a command (say, tell the Roomba to vacuum the hall) and the device carries it out. You can sit on your couch and say, "Alexa, get me a pepperoni pie," and the smart speaker will wake up and phone your favorite pizza joint to order delivery. Very sweet set up, no?

Well yes, but. A smart house may be too smart for the home-owner's own good. In fact, one Echo could give evidence against its owner in the Arkansas murder case.

The Arkansas Case

James Andrew Bates invited two friends to his house to watch football. He told police that he want to bed at 1 a.m., leaving the two others, including the victim, to enjoy his hot tub. Bates said that when he awoke hours later, he found the victim face-down in the hot tub. The second friend told police that he left Bates's house at 12:30 a.m. The Arkansas Crime Lab ruled the death a homicide by strangulation and drowning, and authorities charged Bates with homicide.

Bates owned an Echo smart speaker. Police investigating the killing have issued a search warrant to Amazon for data from the Echo in Bates's home. As of this writing, Amazon had objected to the search warrant. Now it's up to the court to either order Amazon to cough up the Echo data or relieve the company of the obligation and allow it not to disclose the data. Watch this site for developments in the case.

But, regardless of the Arkansas court's ruling, smart device data has been, and will continue to be, sought in criminal and civil cases.

Smart Speaker as Witness

Voice-automated digital assistants on the market today are activated by a "wake word," such as "Alexa," or "Siri." (Some have less anthropomorphized wake words, like "Google.") If a smart speaker gets activated prior to or during a crime in the home, it may have recorded sounds, including voices, after it was "summoned." And, the recordings could provide clues as to the perpetrator, timing, victim, and occurrences during the crime. That is why the Arkansas police want to search the Echo data in the Bates case. For example, if the Echo "woke" during the victim's killing, and Bates's voice is heard at the same time, his bed-time alibi loses credibility. On the other hand, if the Echo recorded the other guest arguing with the victim, it would call into question his statement of events.

Can Alexa Be Called to the Stand?

It's a fun idea, but the device is not a "witness" really; rather, it's a piece of evidence—a device that contains potentially relevant data, much like a drug dealer's cell phone or footage from a surveillance camera.

As potential evidence, it would be subject to analysis by technical experts (assuming a judge even accepted its introduction at trial). Questions of accuracy of any data on the device, clarity of audio recordings, and possible tampering with the device would have to be addressed by experts.

The potential for using the data on smart speakers in court is vast. It's easy to imagine lawyers in domestic violence, child abuse, and burglary cases trying to introduce (or block the introduction of) device data.

And such device data could be useful in civil cases, including child custody and even divorce cases. Beware what you do at home—Alexa might be listening!

Other Devices

Some homes have smart lighting, thermostat, and other such systems. The date and time of use of these systems may be relevant to, say, a person's alibi (if one claims to be out of town when a crime occurs but her smart heating system came on and was overridden by an in-home command, for example). Or, the smart TV could show activation and usage during the period.

Limitations on Disclosure

A device owner could object to the government's effort to access his or her device, arguing that it is an unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. The government would have to show probable cause for conducting the search.

In civil cases, the owner of the in-home device could claim that the data on the device is private and should not be subject to disclosure. A court would then have to weigh the owner's privacy interests with the other party's need for the data to prove their claims.

Your Smart Home May Make You Vulnerable

Smart devices may expose you to activity by criminals, such as hacking into accounts or "casing" your home for burglary opportunities. But, they definitely also expose you to commercial snooping—the smart TV company Vizio faced scrutiny after an investigative report revealed that it shared owner viewing preferences with advertisers.

Check the privacy policy of any smart device you're thinking of installing to find out if your data gets sent back to the home company, and what sort of security protocols the company uses to protect your data. You can even buy yet another device to protect all of the smart devices in your home, in part by monitoring outgoing data and verifying the sites to which it is sent.

Brave New World

Just based on the growth in the market for smart devices in recent months, we can assume that more and more of our things are going to be internet connected. This has benefits and some real downsides. Be as wary when inviting a smart thing into your home as you would be any stranger.

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