June 29, 2017 feature

How Private Is Your Home in the Age of Alexa?

Amazon asserts First Amendment to shield customer’s search requests from warrant

By Carl A. Aveni

Alexa. Cortana. Siri. Odds are good that you own devices connected to at least one of these voice-activated digital assistants.

A phone in your pocket. A laptop on your desk. Perhaps a smart TV or an Amazon Echo sitting somewhere in your home. Convenient to use, perhaps, but also omnipresent. Listening. Collecting both your active search requests and all of the accompanying ambient sounds of your household, for streaming and storage in the cloud. As these voice-activated devices become ubiquitous, new questions are emerging about how this technology changes traditional notions of privacy—and the trade-off between convenience and confidentiality.

Amazon has staked new ground at the center of this debate. Faced with a search warrant for access to a customer’s voice and search data as part of a murder investigation, Amazon asserted that the responsive materials were protected by the First Amendment. A novel response to a recurring question, as lawyers and judges struggle to catch up with technological change.

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