Remember all those conspiracy theorists and Luddits who told you they didn’t want Echo or Alexa devices in their house because those gadgets were spying on them? Well, they were right. It’s not even up for debate.
If you were one of those friends who laughed at them and called them crazy, you were wrong. Admit it.
If you are baffled by what you just read, read on.
Almost ten years ago, writers like Brandon Turbeville and others warned that “smart technology” and “the Internet of Things” were being developed for surveillance and manipulation. (Despite companies’ claims of convenience.) We’ve been on a virtual drag for years.
These devices and technologies are ubiquitous and are used to absorb data, private and personal conversations, interactions and even movement. All of this openly discussed in the mainstream media. Lately, this website has been talking about Nest, your phone’s tracker, and other “smart” technologies. We even talked about how we all have “watch scores”.
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Take a look at Sidney Fussell’s WIRED article, “Meet the Star Witness: Your Smart Speaker”. In this article, Fussell details a murder case in which an Amazon Echo device was presented as evidence.
In July 2019, police rushed to the home of 32-year-old Silvia Galva. Galva’s friend, also at home, called 911, claiming to have heard a heated argument between Galva and her boyfriend, Adam Crespo, 43. The two lived together in Hallandale Beach, Florida, about 20 miles from Miami.
When officers arrived, Galva was dead, impaled through her chest by the 12-inch blade at the sharp end of a bedpost. Police believe Crespo attempted to drag Galva out of bed. She latched onto the bed post to resist, but the sharp end snapped, killing her somehow. Police charged Crespo with second degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $ 65,000 bail, pending trial. In the months following the arrest, Crespo’s attorney presented surprising evidence in his defense: recordings of a pair of Amazon Echo speakers.
“I’ve had a lot of interviews where people have been like, ‘Oh, do you know this might be the first time Alexa tapes are going to be used to convict someone of murder?’” Says Christopher O’Toole, Crespo’s lawyer. “And I actually thought about it the opposite way, that this might be the first time an Amazon Alexa record has been used to exonerate someone and show they’re innocent.”
When police and prosecutors collect smart home or speaker data, it is typically used as evidence against suspects. The Hallandale Beach Police Department filed a subpoena for the Crespo speakers as they may have picked up the audio of the argument Galva’s friend heard.
The incident shows the growing role of smart home appliances and wearable devices in police investigations.
In 2016, Bentonville, Ark., Police requested Amazon Echo data in connection with the death of a man, believed to be the first such request. Amazon first tried to block the request, but then handed over the data. A murder charge against the accused was subsequently dropped, but the speakerphone, smart home and portable data have featured in several cases since then.
The demands for smart and portable data have grown rapidly.
Earlier this month, Amazon said it received more than 3,000 police requests for user data in the first half of this year, and complied nearly 2,000 times. This was a 72% increase in requests from the same period in 2016 when Amazon first disclosed the data, and a 24% jump in the past year alone.
Amazon doesn’t provide granular data on what police are looking for, but Douglas Orr, head of the criminal justice department at the University of North Georgia, says police now search smart home data as regularly as data smartphones. Data on a smartphone often directs agents to other devices, which they then survey as the investigation continues.
By amending a search warrant, police can “continue to collect data,” Orr says. “It usually leads to an echo or at least some other device.”
As Orr explains, agents are increasingly savvy about smart home devices, creating models that simplify the demand for data. Police departments often share these models, he says, tailoring requests to the specifics of the case they are investigating.
Google’s Nest unit reported an increase in police requests for data from its smart speakers through 2018. Google subsequently stopped reporting Nest data separately, including those requests in its transparency report. larger company, which shows an increase in requests for Google user data.
In their terms of service, most major apps and websites include a clause warning users that businesses may submit their data at the request of the government. Law enforcement agencies file subpoenas or search warrants for data, detailing to judges what evidence they expect to find on the devices and how that can serve the investigation. Amazon and Google both notify users of a data request unless the order itself prohibits it. Any number of entities can request user data, but companies say they prioritize requests based on urgency.
“Things like homeland security will be given a high priority,” says Lee Whitfield, a forensic analyst. “Other law enforcement requests will come into play. And then things like divorce cases or civil cases, they rank lower. “
In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company “opposes overly broad or otherwise inappropriate demands” from law enforcement and referred WIRED to its policy on government demands. . A Google spokesperson also referred WIRED to its updated policy on requests.
Forensic experts tell WIRED that information from devices is valued because it can offer a timeline of a person’s activities, their location, whether they are alone, and can verify statements made during questioning.
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Orr studied the types of data police can extract from smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo. “The voice clips are just the start,” he says. The speakers keep time-stamped logs of user activity. Police can look at these records to get an idea of what someone was doing around the time of an alleged crime.
Fussell then provides another example of how these devices are used by law enforcement.
Take the example of a potential suspect who cannot prove where he was at 11 p.m. on a Thursday because he lives alone. Something as simple as ordering pizza through a speakerphone would show the time and location of the request and, if voice recognition is enabled, who made the request. “It might be benign information that someone was ordering pizza, but it could also be someone’s alibi,” Orr says.
The police are increasingly relying on wearable devices and smart devices to verify claims of people during an investigation. Sometimes the tools can reveal a lie.
Heather Mahalik, a forensic instructor, recalls a case in Florida in which a man killed his wife and then attempted to impersonate her. The husband texted and Facebook messages from his wife’s phone in an attempt to blur the timeline of his disappearance. As the woman’s phone activity continued, her Apple Watch showed a sudden drop in heart rate activity which the husband said was due to a dead battery. The activity on the man’s phone synced perfectly with when he used his wife’s phone to post to Facebook. Her phone showed no activity except when the husband took it to post, with time stamps corresponding to his activity using the wife’s phone.
“We were able to tell from his device that he would pick up the phone, take 18 steps, and that matched the time he posted a message on Facebook,” Mahalik says.
Connecting information from multiple devices is common practice, analysts say. Information on one device may suggest evidence on another. This ability to chain discoveries leads to what another expert calls a phased approach to digital forensics.
“They ask something, the investigation goes on, they find something else of interest, and then they ask for the next thing,” says Whitfield, the forensic analyst.
O’Toole, Crespo’s lawyer, said police immediately subpoenaed Crespo’s social media accounts, then requested his voice recordings about four weeks later. Officers wrote in the search warrant that data on the speaker may include “audio recordings capturing the attack on victim Silvia Crespo”.
O’Toole says he intends to showcase the smart speaker recordings in favor of his client. By email, a spokesperson for Hallandale Beach Police confirmed the case was still active, but did not provide further comment.
O’Toole says the smart speaker recordings are among several cases he’s working on, including a divorce in which a woman assigned data to a smart speaker that may have picked up the sounds of his husband with another wife.
Whitfield says police are increasingly aware of the information in smart speaker activity logs. He recalls one case where the police found drugs in a household with several residents. Officers identified a suspect after entering data from a smart speaker. His journal not only listed recent drug-related queries, but also identified who was speaking them. Google and Amazon speakers allow users to create profiles so that devices recognize their individual voices. This information helped police identify the suspect.
“I just don’t see it going away,” Whitfield says. “I think it’s going to be more and more prolific over time.”
Whitfield is right.
It will never go away.
The advertising of these technological devices as a tool of convenience was a manipulative tactic to introduce technological devices into their real purpose – the tracking, surveillance, and recording of citizens so that no action – no matter how small. – does not go unnoticed. We are already living in a state of surveillance and it will only get worse.
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