Alexa: personal helper or digital witness

Evidence isn’t what it used to be—not even what it was a few years ago. In what sounds like a lost episode of Black Mirror, reports emerged this week that police are investigating a man’s digital assistant for clues to a suspected killing.

News site The Information reported that in November 2015, an Arkansas man named Victor Collins was found dead in the hot tub of his friend James Andrew Bates. He had spent the night watching football and drinking with Bates and two other friends. At the scene, police discovered signs of a struggle and blood in the house. They decided Collins had died of strangulation and drowning, and charged Bates with murder.

So far, a tragic but relatively common story—except for two details. Bates owned an Amazon Echo, an always-on, voice-activated personal assistant. Upon detecting its activation word—usually “Alexa”—the Echo starts recording voice commands. It then sends these commands over the Internet—along with anything else it hears—to Amazon’s Alexa service in the cloud. Alexa processes the commands and instructs the Echo how to respond.

As The Information uncovered in Arkansas court records, police speculated that Bates’s Echo may have recorded evidence the night of Collins’ death. They asked Amazon for the data, but so far Amazon has refused to turn it over, telling Fortune:

Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.

Meanwhile police are focusing on another unusual piece of digital evidence. Bates’s digital water meter recorded that his home used 130 gallons of water the night of Collins’ death between 1am and 3am. Prosecutors believe the water was used to clean the crime scene and conceal evidence. As Fortune points out, assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Home, record only when activated, and even then for only a short time. It also remains an open question whether companies like Amazon will be compelled to produce data they’ve recorded.

Whatever the outcome, the Bates case illustrates just how much data about us our devices are already collecting. Worries about the Echo are understandable—especially given that the Echo and the smaller Echo Dot were Amazon’s best-selling products this Christmas—but probably overblown given the small amount of time they actually capture data. In aggregate though, the concern is justified. Cell phones track our position and have already become a courtroom staple. Google searches reveal our interests (and are also finding their way into court). Fitness bands record how often we exercise. The proverbial connected refrigerator will know when we’ve had a late-night snack, and our toothbrushes may soon monitor our dental hygiene.

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At work, the story is similar. One Boston startup has developed a “sociometric badge” that monitors the wearer’s movement, posture, and even tone of voice. An Italian design company has created office furniture that can tell who is in a meeting, and change the temperature, humidity and lighting accordingly.

No more “he said, she said.” If two people are in a room together, the room itself will remember it. It seems inevitable that connected devices will produce an abundance of discoverable data that would have seemed unimaginable just a decade ago. Email will remain essential for proving state of mind—who knew what, and when—but data from connected devices will reveal not just what people thought and said, but what they did, often down to the second when they did it.

For ediscovery, the challenge with all this data may be variety more than volume. Each device may have its own proprietary data format. Without a doubt, legal professionals will need to deploy a wider range of evidence than ever before, drawn from even more sources of information. The task of legal technology is to help them bring this data together and weave it into a coherent argument. Collaboration and storytelling will become more complicated—and important—than ever. Not that analysis will take a back seat, but other challenges of case preparation will become more even more urgent.

In the grand scheme of things, these are actually still early days for the Internet of Things, but an always-on, always-watching world is no longer the stuff of science fiction. It might not be here quite yet, but you can see it in the distance. Customs will change. The law will have to adapt. And so will legal technology.

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