Should your personal assistant be forced to snitch on you?

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An interesting story came across the news wire the other day, and I thought perhaps we should talk about it. It seems there’s a murder case in which the murder suspect allowed Amazon to hand over voice requests from his Amazon Echo. Investigators were hoping that perhaps the data recorded by the device might prove useful in some aspect of their investigation. Since the Echo is always listening, maybe there’s something to that.

Now, we need to be perfectly clear here. Amazon, Google, and others are only recording information after they are deliberately triggered. In the case of the Echo, of course, that’s after the word “Alexa” or “Amazon” (or more recently “Computer”) is said. Whether or not in this case, that data will prove to be useful is actually irrelevant at the moment. The owner of the device requested and gave permission to Amazon to release the data. He hopes that it will help exonerate him, but this raises bigger questions.

What is protected?

Should authorities have access to the data recorded by personal assistants? The devices are always listening, but if they only record data when they’re triggered, I wonder how useful they’d be to investigators. Of course, if one of the recorded phrases is “What’s the best place to stab someone?” or “Order a shovel, hack saw, garbage bags, and lye” then well, let’s just say I hope you have a good attorney.

But the question remains where does this data fall in the realm of investigations. According to some court cases, this data falls under the case of “protected speech” and therefore cannot be compelled. Indeed, in the cited case, Amazon turned investigators down twice before the owner allowed the data. I’m pretty ok with that. I’m not so sure the population is ready to have always-listening devices in their homes unless this is considered protected speech. Why make the government go to all the trouble of planting bugs in your house when you can install your own for the bargain price of $129?

Keep it close

Personally, I’m ok with the government digging around in my business – because my business is pretty boring. I’m not afraid of being spied on or monitored because I haven’t done, nor am I planning to do anything wrong. But there are people out there who are nervous about such things, and I can’t say I blame them. So, if we are moving toward a world with always-listening assistants, we’re going to need to set pretty clear boundaries on who can access that data and when and why.

On the flip side, if I ever am murdered, it would be nice to say “Alexa, the person who killed me in 6’1, 250 lbs with blonde hair and brown eyes and a scar on his left cheek.” That would be a way of getting the last laugh, but I’d still be dead, so I guess I wouldn’t care too much at that point. But it’s also fair to say that that’s probably an “edge case”.

Keep it private

On the whole, it’s probably pretty safe to say that protecting that data is a good thing. Not allowing police and other government agencies into our homes is probably a good idea on balance. If society is going to be expected or encouraged to adopt this technology, we need to err on the side of caution. That includes recording dying declarations in the sanctity of your home.

Finally, it’s important to consider that these messages may not always be used exclusively for murder investigations. Once that door is cracked, it could be forced further open. There has been a lot of concern over security with mobile devices of late, and this is another extension of that. Something like this could set dangerous precedents going forward. It’s vitally important that we take these first steps very cautiously.

But that’s just me, what about you? Do you think our personal assistants should be called upon to snitch on us? Should the government be able to access those recordings? What about in the case of the end of someone’s life, or in matters of national security? Where do you draw the line? Sound off below with your thoughts. Arguments could be made either way.

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About The Author
Adam Doud

Adam joined the tech world after watching Jon Rubenstein demo the most epic phone ever at CES 2009. He is webOS enthusiast, Windows Phone fan, and Android skeptic. He loves the outdoors, is an avid Geocacher, Cubs/Blackhawks fan, and family man living in Sweet Home Chicago, where he STILL hosts monthly webOS meetups (Don’t call it a comeback!). He can be found tweeting all things tech as @DeadTechnology, or chi-town sports at @oneminutecubs. Read more about Adam Doud!