Does Alexa Hold the Key to Solving Murder Case?

Late in 2015, an Arkansas police officer was found dead after allegedly drowning in a colleague’s hot tub. Clues as to the true events behind the death began to unfold with the subsequent investigation: red-tinted water, swollen lips, and a bill for 140 gallons of water between 1:00am and 3:00am on the night of the incident. There’d been a murder.

To further assist with the investigation, US Authorities served a warrant on Amazon for data stored on an Echo smart speaker that was being used to stream music during the evening of the victim’s death.

Amazon states that the Echo only moves audio it can record up to the cloud servers once the keyword ‘Alexa’ (known as a wake-word) is heard. Once the requested task has been fulfilled, the device moves into standby and halts the audio stream to Amazon’s cloud server. If this is indeed the case it could potentially be why Amazon have since refused the request.

Could It Really Help?

Described by Amazon as a hands-free, voice-controlled speaker you ‘just ask’. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather and more. Amazon is very keen to sell the technical details about how the Echo listens and responds to the user boasting technologies such as Echo Spatial Perception (knowing which device you’re closest to) and beam-forming (knowing which direction you’re facing). However, Amazon are understandably far more secretive about the methods that the Echo uses to fulfil the advertised functions.

To this end, it is unclear from a technical perspective exactly how much is recorded. Specifically, the terms of use that accompany the device state that ‘’Alexa processes and retains your voice input and other information, such as your music playlists and your Alexa to-do and shopping lists, in the cloud to respond to your requests and improve our services’. However, as Alexa must always be listening (not necessarily active, but listening) this audio must be recorded in some capacity and then processed by Alexa, allowing it to jump into action immediately. It is not currently clear if this is only stored locally within the Echo device or if anything is being transmitted to an Amazon server.

Other potential, perhaps more obvious, avenues of interest would be the voice recordings that have been sent to the cloud server in which Alexa operates. Stored so the device can adapt and learn to understand the needs of the end user better and to help it to fulfil the requests correctly, it may contain useful snippets of evidence, for example; ‘Alexa, what is the best way to rob a bank’ or more subtly, ‘Alexa, which route should I take to get to X’s house’ could provide vital clues to routes, times and dates that specific events occurred.