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Amazon releases Echo data in murder case, dropping First Amendment argument

After several months of pushback, Amazon has agreed to release user data from an Amazon Echo device involved in a high-profile Arkansas murder trial.

The device, a popular, hands-free artificial intelligence assistant named “Alexa” that responds to human directives, contains audio recordings that prosecutors say could could provide information in the murder of Victor Collins, 47, who was found dead in his hot tub on Nov. 22, 2015, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

James Bates, 31, was charged with first-degree murder and tampering with evidence in the case.

Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith wrote in an email that prosecutors were “pleased” with Amazon’s decision.

“I am pleased that we will have access to the data from the Defendant’s Echo device since the Defendant consented to its release,” Smith said. “As with any case, our obligation is to investigate all of the available evidence, whether the evidence proves useful or not.”

Smith said he could not provide details on the recordings or if they would be used in court because the case is still under investigation.

Amazon had argued against the data’s release in February, saying the Echo recordings were protected under the First Amendment. According to a court order, Bates consented to the disclosure, which then prompted Amazon to agree to the release of the data March 3.

Amazon declined to comment for this story, but did provide the official court order to the NewsHour, acknowledging the defendant’s consent.

Kathleen Zellner, Bates’ legal counsel, said in a statement to the NewsHour: “Because Mr. Bates is innocent of all charges in this matter, he has agreed to the release of any recordings on his Amazon Echo device to the prosecution.”

This case depicts yet another legal battle over the use of technology-based evidence and privacy laws. Other similar cases include Apple’s toe-to-toe with the FBI over the hack of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone.

Carrie Leonetti, an associate law professor at the University of Oregon, said the Bates case highlights an important ongoing open issue in the field of constitutional criminal procedure.

“In my mind, as well as the minds of a lot of other privacy experts, the Echo has been a ticking constitutional time bomb, along with a lot of other features of smart homes and the internet of things,” Leonetti, who teaches criminal and constitutional law, said.

“The same issue has arisen with the NSA’s pattern analysis of American’s ‘telephony metadata,’ cell-site location tracking of suspects via subpoenas to the phone company, and GPS cell-phone tracking,” she added.

A hearing set for today on the Amazon Echo case is now canceled following the defendant’s consent.

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