‘Smart’ devices outwit even the sharpest mind

Published 2:12 pm Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Is it possible for an Amazon Echo to testify in a criminal case against its owner?

As Internet-connected devices within a residence, or even a vehicle, become more and more popular, their technology leaves the door slightly ajar for possible ways to get around privacy laws in an effort to solve crimes.

Initially reported in “The Information” (a website founded in 2013 that reports on the fast-growing technology industry) police in Bentonville, Arkansas have issued a warrant to Amazon, asking the company to hand over data from an Echo device to help prosecute a suspected murderer.

The suspect in that case, James Andrew Bates, was charged with first-degree murder in November of 2015 after authorities discovered an acquaintance of Bates, Victor Collins, strangled and drowned in a hot tub located in Bates’ home.

According to Bates, he told police that Collins and two other men – Owen McDonald and Sean Henry – were invited to his home to watch a football game. Sometimes around 1 am, Mr. Henry left the residence and Bates went to bed, leaving Collins and McDonald to hang out and drink in his hot tub.

According to Bates’ affidavit, he found Collins face down in the water when he woke up several hours later. However, McDonald says he left Bates and Collins around 12:30 a.m., which was a story confirmed by McDonald’s wife.

So, if McDonald’s story about leaving at 12:30 am is confirmed and Bates said he was in bed, who killed Collins? The answer may come through the high tech device (or devices) in Bates home.

The Bentonville Police have seized the Amazon Echo from Bates’ home and have requested of Amazon to release any audio recordings from that device from the night in question. Again, according to “The Information”, police records say the Echo could have controlled the streaming music, which was being wirelessly transmitted throughout the night at the Bates home using Echo’s assistant Alexa.

However, it’s unclear how much data police could extract from the device or how useful that data would be in the case. Alexa is always listening through a system of seven built-in microphones, but the device waits for a “wake word” (devised by its owner) prior to responding to commands (i.e. weather forecast, musical selections to play). The device also streams your audio to the cloud, including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word.

To date, Amazon has declined to release information as requested by the police. In a statement, the company says it will not be releasing 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.”

But there may be another technical clue in this case. Bates home is equipped with a smart water device and court records in the case show Bates’ home ran 140 gallons of water between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on the night in question.

In another case of Internet technology serving as a key witness, police in Port St. Lucie, Florida were able to solve a hit-and-run case due to Ford’s Emergency Assistance safety feature on their vehicles.

Cathy Bernstein, in December of last year, allegedly rear-ended two vehicles and left the scene without reporting the accident to the authorities, according to ABC 7 News.

The safety feature activates when sensors on the car detect a sudden change of speed or movement. An emergency call is automatically placed to local first responders who can pinpoint the precise location of the incident using information supplied by the vehicle’s GPS unit.

An audio recording released by the authorities reveals how Bernstein tried to convince the dispatcher that there was no cause for concern. When the dispatcher asks what’d happened, Bernstein responds, “Ma’am, there’s no problem. Everything was fine.”

Suspecting there was more to the situation than Bernstein was letting on, the dispatcher responds: “OK, but your car called in saying you’d been involved in an accident. It doesn’t do that for no reason. Did you leave the scene of an accident?”

“No, I would never do that,” comes the reply.

After one of the drivers had been taken to hospital with minor injuries, police arrested Bernstein in connection with the incident.

The types of hi-tech devices in these two cases prove that no matter how smart the human mind is, computer generated technology has upped the ante.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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