Just as smartphones put internet and home media functions at your fingertips, Google’s Home and Amazon’s Alexa do the same with voice commands—responding to anything prefaced by “Hey Google” or “OK Google” or “Alexa.” Using these phrases, called “wake words,” ensures that the devices aren’t constantly responding to every word of conversation in the room.
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Their creators call the devices “smart home speakers” and “voice assistants.” But their most prominent function is listening, not speaking. Constantly. If the devices aren’t constantly listening, they can’t respond the moment an owner summons their attention with a wake word.
That’s where some privacy skeptics began to sound the alarm. Much like every time you browse the Internet, Amazon and Google use what you tell Alexa and Home to build a profile of your interests and activity. And ultimately, they use it to target you with ads. Amazon and Google say they don’t record you when you’re not explicitly speaking to one of the devices.
But a warrant filed in a murder case in Benton County, Arkansas may confirm whether that’s really true.
Bentonville resident James Bates is charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors have confirmed subpoenas of Alexa’s full audio recordings from two nights in November 2016 from the Alexa device in Bates’ apartment in Bentonville.
It is the first time that such a device has been the subject of a subpoena; it is essentially being used as a witness.
NBC News reports that Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith is “not trying to force” Amazon to comply, and that Amazon may not be able to comply with the warrants as written. A judge could still find Amazon in contempt of court and try to force compliance with the subpoena, but whether that will happen remains to be seen.