Following the Arkansas hot tub murder case that has reignited the debate around privacy rights issues, activists are advocating the need to set protocols for technology providers to deter mass surveillance by the government and law enforcement agencies.
In the Arkansas hot tub murder case, James Andrew Bates is currently on trial. Bates is accused of murdering his friend Victor Collins, who was found dead in a hot tub in Bates' home in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 2015. Local authorities issued a warrant as they sought assistance from Amazon to release any audio or records from an Amazon Echo device that Bates owned.
Following the footsteps of Apple, who similarly resisted handing over private user data to the FBI when the agency asked the company to unlock the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, Amazon also reportedly declined to give authorities the Echo data logged on its servers. However, they eventually handed over Bates’ account details and purchases, and without specifying the precise nature of the data that they accessed, law enforcement authorities claim they were able to get the information from the device.
In an earlier statement to International Business Times, Amazon said: "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."
Amazon Echo is a smart speaker that combines voice recognition "intelligent assistant" capabilities with speaker functionality and falls under the category of similar ‘always-on devices’ such as Google "Alexa" and Apple’s "Siri" that rely on "wake words" to interpret instructions given by the user to act on them.
In the aftermath of the recent development in the Arkansas hot tub murder case, privacy advocates such as Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have commented on the case and its wider implications.
In an interview to Democracy Now, Rotenberg described how EPIC approached the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice in an attempt to bring some clarity on several important legal questions.
“What information about the user is being collected? How reliable are these wake words? How can it be that the company is actually in possession of information that could be useful to law enforcement?” he asked.
According to him, the question of privacy does not stop at its easy accessibility to law enforcement agencies. At the other end of the spectrum, he questioned the kind of technological safeguards that prevent your privacy from being undermined by criminal hackers.
But both Marc and Cindy also raised concerns about the members of the incoming administration under President-elect Donald Trump, such as CIA nominee Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, who have advocated extending domestic surveillance. EFF has already penned an open letter that expresses the group’s concerns.
"The informal pressure to dumb down security already exists and some companies are willing to do it… [The open letter] is what we think is going to happen with the new administration — it doesn't look like the pressure is going to decrease… We don't think we'll see [new privacy/security bills] introduced as the first thing on the new Congress' agenda, but we doubt it won't be taken up at some point." Cindy told Channelnomics.