Snoopy Appliances Invade Home Privacy

Technology companies are taking marketing ploys to new heights as their electronic gadgets captivate the latest generation of young consumers. The introduction of “smart” technologies – appliances that can be activated and controlled by voice commands to “listen in” and “help us out” by turning on some music or dimming the lights.

All of these high-tech manufacturers gloss over the very real legal and security concerns consumers are raising about their intelligent devices. These machines continue to record everything within their range whenever you fail or forget to turn them off.

This always-on feature of smart appliances such as Amazon Echo/Alexa or Google Home is often overlooked. It becomes important for people like James Bates of Bentonville, Arkansas:

“Police records in Bentonville, Arkansas show that James Bates called 911 on Sunday morning just before Thanksgiving 2015, and reported chilling news: he’d just opened his back door and found one of his buddies floating face down in the hot tub, dead. When police showed up, Bates said he had no idea how it happened.”

That buddy was Victor Collins (47) of Centerton. He died Nov. 22, 2015.

When law enforcement officers arrived at his home, Bates told them he had invited Collins and some other friends over to drink and watch a football game. Bates said he discovered Collins floating in the hot tub and promptly called 911.

Bates consented for a police search of his property which was rigged with SmartWare inside and out. An Amazon Echo was sitting on the kitchen counter. The Echo is a voice-activated two-way smart speaker system that interfaces with Alexa, the humanoid-voiced utility that “wakes up” to special words such as, “Hey Alexa.” There was also a smart utility meter outside the house.

The officers examined Collins’ body. It was cut and bruised. There was blood inside the hot tub and in the water. The police report said a medical examiner looked at Collins’ body and pronounced the man was probably in a fight and had died from strangulation and drowning.

When the police spotted the Echo/Alexa system in Bates’ kitchen, they made a note and requested a search warrant which a judge granted for all Amazon’s audio recordings and other records from the device during the time period of the incident.

The  warrant request stated:

“The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or ‘Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com’s servers at a remote location.”

Police returned to the Bates residence and seized the smart two-way recording device as evidence to be used against him. A manager at the utility company volunteered to police that the smart meter for Bates’ house had logged a much higher consumption rate between 1am-3am the day of the murder, far more than he had ever used previously.

Police concluded that Bates had used the garden hose to clean the back patio of any signs of struggle and charged him with first-degree murder.

Bates was arrested in February 2016 and released on a $350,000 bond. The case made national headlines because, for the first time, a U.S. court allowed evidence to be presented from a smart appliance.

Writing for Slate, Jacob Brogan cautioned:

“All of this should offer an important reminder that it’s not always wise to blindly commit to smart devices, even if you’re not planning criminal acts. In the name of providing us with easy access to information, they’re also collecting enormous amounts of information about is, information that can be put to surprising ends.”

Bates’ defense lawyer Kimberly Weber gave her opinion about the landmark case:

“You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us.”

Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith defended the judicial action in granting a search warrant to examine the contents of a smart appliance:

“If we can search your house, your car and your bank account, I don’t understand why we can’t search this. The Echo is not protected from the warrant requirement.”

Prosecutors also ordered Echo-maker Amazon to hand over the recordings that Bates’ device made before and after he claimed he found the body. Amazon resisted the subpoena. The prosecutors initiated a vigorous court battle against Amazon. Ultimately, Bates gave up the recordings voluntarily.

In December 2017, a judge dismissed a murder charge against Bates after prosecutor Smith filed a motion to dismiss because the evidence produced, including that from the Amazon Echo, supported more than one “reasonable explanation” for what really happened to cause Collins’ death:

“I can’t stand in front of a jury and ask them to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt if I myself have a reasonable doubt.”

After his case was dismissed, Bates stated he was not guilty of the murder charge:

“I’m 100% innocent,” Bates told KNWA after the charges were dropped Wednesday. “I did nothing wrong, I’m not going to hide. I’m going to stay right here.”

Dale Watson is the FBI’s former executive assistant director. Now he is a private consultant. This seasoned veteran gave the upside and the downside of new smart technologies in American homes:

“From a law enforcement or intelligence perspective, these are very valuable tools that can let them monitor or listen to individuals. Smart devices are also kind of frightening. What are the legal ramifications? The technology is moving so fast that the laws and courts haven’t caught up with it.”

The real lesson learned from the Bates case is that law enforcement personnel are being encouraged by government prosecutors to view your smart appliances as possible witnesses, subject to court orders and appearances. Bates’ legal trouble isn’t over yet, either. In November 2018, Collin’s widow, Kristine Collins Homan, instructed her Bentonville attorney Shane Wilkinson file a lawsuit alleging that Bates was responsible for the death of her husband.

According to Homan’s legal complaint, “Collins and Bates drank more alcohol in the hot tub after the game ended, and Bates later drove Collins to the store to get more alcohol. They continued to drink alcohol, and at some point, the two got into a fight, which ended in Collins’ death.”

Bates now stands accused of committing “willful, wanton, malicious and wrongful acts” that caused his friend to die.

Now consider this scenario: what if there had been a smart recording appliance placed near the hot tub?

We have entered a day and age when the appliances we buy slavishly record everything within their earshot. Best mind your Ps and Qs. Amazon is listening.