How Much Info Do Digital Home Assistants Store?

By Brenda Flanagan

At Amazon’s mammoth fulfillment center in Robbinsville, execs demoed Alexa for the media.

Alexa lives in the cloud and according to the company’s YouTube ad, it’s always listening via the Echo Dot smart speaker.

“Can it hear me right now? Nope. It only hears you when you use the wake word we chose — Alexa!”

Alexa can play music, make lists and answer questions. But can it help solve a murder? In Bentonville, Ark., the prosecutor wants to know. They found a dead man floating in a hot tub there last year and hope data recorded by the alleged murderer’s Amazon Echo might prove useful. But Amazon’s refusing to honor search warrants, stating, “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.”

“You know, Amazon’s effort to frustrate that will almost certainly go down in flames and will not be successful,” said attorney Scott Christie.

Christie says once Alexa’s activated, it records and stores information in the cloud until the owner deletes it — including possible clues a judge might consider quite relevant in a criminal investigation.

“Big Brother is watching and law enforcement is very creative and if they believe there is information out there that might be helpful that is being stored, it’s not too challenging to get a search warrant to get access to it,” he said.

“The good thing is that, in New Jersey, our constitution and our courts protect our right to privacy more than most other states,” said Ed Barocas, legal director of ACLU of New Jersey. “There’s not only an expectation of privacy in your home, but there’s also still an expectation of privacy in information you give to — for example — your bank or your internet service provider.”

Barocas says it depends on how much information the warrant requests and from which technology. Apple’s Siri is voice-activated and ever-vigilant.

“The device is always on and it’s picking up ambient sound because it’s searching for commands that you may usher in order to receive a good or service,” said Tom Kellerman, CEO of Strategic Cyber Ventures.

Apple notes, “…nothing is ever recorded in any way before the feature is triggered.” And the company refused to help federal investigators crack the encryption on the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. But Alexa’s only one of a growing number of smart access services like Google Now and Microsoft Cortana connecting the so-called internet of things — including smart appliances from TVs to coffeemakers.

“You’ve purchased a bug and you’ve deployed it in your home,” Kellerman said. “Hackers can easily commandeer these things if you do not follow the simple rules of security for your home.”

As technology evolves, the law’s catching up. But privacy advocates say consumers need to protect themselves — change your default password to a sentence, put a piece of tape over your laptop camera. If you’re not using it — power it down.