Judge Rules Amazon Echo Can Be Used In New Hampshire Murder Trial

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A New Hampshire Judge has now ruled that authorities will now be able to access recordings taken by an Amazon Echo speaker which the prosecution believes may hold evidence of one instance in a double homicide, according to a recent report from the Boston Herald. The smart speaker is thought to have been activated during the murder of one victim in the case, 48-year-old Christine Sullivan, but the recordings are owned by 35-year-old Timothy Verrill, who stands accused in the deaths. The homicides occurred in 2017 and the prosecution has not said whether or not it believes the gadget also captured the death of a second victim, 32-year-old Jenna Pellegrini. Amazon is said to be refusing to release any data from its servers that store the data without a “properly served” and legally binding demand from the court. Mr. Verrill has pled not guilty to the charges and is awaiting trial.

Background: This is not the first time that connected technologies have been used to assist in the solving of a high-profile crime. In fact, several of the more widely reported instances have not even involved AI-enabled listening devices. The most recent of those involved a Fitbit-built fitness wearable that was used in conjunction with video footage to place a 90-year-old suspect at the scene of a murder that had initially been thought to be a suicide. A similar scenario also played out in an earlier 2015 case, with Fitbit’s gadget being worn by the suspect and the victim. In each case, the collected location tracking data served a crucial role in determining that the respective suspects had been dishonest about their whereabouts during the crime and, ultimately, in linking other evidence together and to the suspect in question.

More pertinently to this most recent proceeding, Amazon’s Echo-branded devices have been utilized by police in at least one 2016 case but with evidence being drawn from the speakers’ recording functionality. Amazon had initially declined to turn over its stored audio regardless of two warrants being served, until the suspect, James Andrew Bates, agreed to the release of the data. That was also after the police, in that case, were allegedly able to recover some audio from the speaker without Amazon’s help. Regardless, as with the previous court proceedings, that data was eventually used as part of the evidentiary submissions to convict Mr. Bates of first-degree murder.


Impact: While there’s generally not going to be any disagreement about whether or not anybody who has committed a murder or other equally heinous crime should be imprisoned, there is at least one other common thread between each of those cases. As with those other investigations, one of the most pressing questions on the table centers around whether or not anybody who is using these types of devices has any right to expect privacy. To begin with, although, for the time being, manufacturers and other companies behind the technology have been very defensive of the data they hold, there is no so thing as perfect security. That raises questions about whether or not any of that information should be stored and what options users should have for controlling the flow of data. Beyond that, there are ethical concerns about how cases such as those will affect the ability of authorities to attain that data, particularly with consideration for privacy concerns raised from the direction taken by authorities through the similar technologies in China. There’s currently no easy answer to any of those concerns.