In Bentonville, Arkansas, authorities are seeking data from a murder suspect’s Amazon Echo. That’s a home speaker and virtual personal assistant called Alexa designed to always listen for commands. As in, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” or “Alexa, add paper towels to my shopping list.”

Because the Echo is constantly listening (thought not constantly recording), law enforcement wonders whether Amazon’s servers may hold clues to why a man was found dead on the property of the device’s owner. Amazon has declined to give up the information, but privacy advocates worry new precedents may be set regarding police access to what we assume is private data. Police have reportedly already used data from a smart-home water pump to build their case in Bentonville.

The Echo is just one of many devices that always listens. iPhones await a user saying “Hey Siri,” for instance. Several people have posted stories saying they discussed something, then saw ads for it online later, as if their phones heard their conversations. It’s likely many of these cases are coincidence, though they’re not technically impossible.

As these features become more integrated into our daily lives, we ask what happens with what our devices hear? Who can access it?

Guests

  • Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science at Harvard University and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He's also the author of "The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It."
  • Tom Dotan is a reporter with The Information. His story 'Amazon Echo and the Hot Tub Murder' explores how law enforcement may seek data from connected home devices.
  • Ronald Hosko is the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and former Assistant Director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division.
  • Manoush Zomorodi is the host of the podcast Note to Self from WNYC Studios.

Where To Look For Privacy Information

Manoush Zamorodi and Tom Dotan were asked where they go to find reporting on terms and conditions for our apps and devices. Researchers say it would take 76 work days to read all of them. But for people with less free time, our guests recommend the nonprofit groups the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as the news site ZD Net.

Tell Us Your Creepy Tech Story

For this show, we’re looking for stories about times when technological serendipity felt like more than a coincidence. Has an online ad seemed just a little too accurate? Or have you ever felt like your phone was listening to you?

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