We’ve seen those movies, read those books and seen visions of the future where every house is equipped with some kind of monitoring device that enables government surveillance. For Amazon and their Echo/Alexa, they are doing what the can to prevent their product from becoming a spy tool for the government.
Amazon hopes to stop their devices from becoming a tool of government listening, which in turn, would stop people from purchasing them. Amazon has file a motion to prevent recorded audio from an Echo being used as evidence in a criminal trial.
In a case in Arkansas last year, police sought to obtain recordings that had been captured by Echo as evidence in a 2015 murder case. The Echo that had recorded the evidence belonged to the defendant. The murder victim was found int he defendant’s house. It was the belief of the police that Alexa may have captured evidence of what happened. (Alexa is always listening even when it’s not actively responding to queries.)
Amazon sought to quash the government search warrant that sought to obtain the audio recordings. Even then, Amazon provided the police with subscriber and purchase history information, and has argued that any Alexa audio should be excluded under the First Amendment.
In the argument below, Amazon argues that Alexa interactions are protected free speech. Amazon cited Search King v. Google for the proposition that Alexa responses are like search results and entitled to the same editorial protections accorded Google under that ruling and related case law:
In addition to the recordings of user requests for information, Alexa’s responses are also protected by the First Amendment. First, as noted above, the responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech. In a similar context, courts have recognized that “the First Amendment protects as speech the results produced by an Internet search engine.” Zhang v. Baidu.com Inc., 10 F. Supp. 3d 433, 435 (S.D.N.Y. 2014). Alexa’s decision about what information to include in its response, like the ranking of search results, is “constitutionally protected opinion” that is “entitled to ‘full constitutional protection.’”
It isn’t being argued by that the government shouldn’t ever be able to access Alexa recordings, but the government should show a compelling need for the information, beyond the fact that it simply exists. The company says that without clearing that higher bar, free speech would be “chilled” for Alexa device owners:
Such government demands inevitably chill users from exercising their First Amendment rights to seek and receive information and expressive content in the privacy of their own home, conduct which lies at the core of the Constitution. To guard against such a chilling effect, this Court should require the State to make a prima facie showing that it has a compelling need for any recordings that were created as a result of interactions with the Echo device, and that the State’s request bears a sufficient nexus to the underlying investigation.
Even though the idea of an AI device having free speech rights is a bit weird sounding, the Search King case and related law arguable establish such a proposition.
The argument made by Amazon regarding First Amendment rights for Alexa interactions sounds reasonable and possibly legal sounding.