Alexa, Give me an Update: The Changing Legal Landscape in the World of New Technology
Like thousands of others around the world, I recently added a new presence in my home: Alexa. Alexa (the virtual assistant accessed through the Amazon Echo) sits on my kitchen counter and on a daily basis tells me jokes, the weather, score updates and plays music on request. I am still learning all she can do, such as make purchases and send messages to others. All in all, it seems innocent enough, a convenient source of information and entertainment. But as always, we are learning there is much more to it than it may seem.
Over time I have written about how the leaps and bounds being made with new technology have the potential to really impact the legal world. More often than not, we do not think about these things until an unexpected situation arises. This is what happened when Arkansas police issued a warrant for all recordings from an Echo device as part of a murder investigation. The purpose was to try and find actual recordings of the crime, or to see when certain requests were made and by whom, which could provide important information about who was in the home and when. In February 2017, Amazon filed a Motion to Quash, arguing that all voice interactions with Alexa (and Alexa’s replies) were protected by the First Amendment. This presented a novel legal question about how far Constitutional protection extends in the age of new technology. What is considered free speech? Who and what have free speech rights? Ultimately the defendant willingly permitted this information to be produced, and the issue never was decided by the Courts. But with this question still unanswered, it will very likely arise again. And as technology advances, Courts will have to continuously assess the application of law to new circumstances.
Though this closed the chapter in the specific investigation, it triggered a wave of questions by the public about what information on the Echo is recorded, who can access it and how protected these communications really are. In order to trigger the Echo, all you need to do is say “Alexa” (or another “wake word” of your choosing). At that point, the device hears you and listens to your request/command. Though I had not thought about it before, what this really means is that in some sense, the device is always listening. It turns out that the Echo is always monitoring noises that surround it for the trigger. But it only starts to record once it hears the wake word and then continues to record the entire command. These recordings are stored on the Amazon server, and you can access them all through the Alexa application. To make you feel better, once you access these you can also delete the recordings if you so choose.
Recently, there has also been speculation that Amazon may provide transcripts of these recordings to third-party developers who can use the information to build better software. Amazon has not issued a clear cut response about if that will take place and what level of consent would be obtained before doing so. Though it is not clear if or how this will happen, it presents even more legal questions about privacy and who actually owns the data obtained from an Echo device.
As our society expands the use of new technology for day to day use, there is no doubt that new situations will present themselves that have important legal consequences. The Amazon Echo is just one example, and as you can see, many questions about its legal parameters remain unanswered for the time being. That likely will not be the case for long, and we can expect to see more developments on these issues in the future. Alexa, please keep us posted.
Photo Credit: Scott Lewis