Could a murder trial reveal what Amazon Echo is actually listening to?

Here’s an interesting news item which may represent the intersection of violent crime and invasive technology and privacy concerns. In January of last year, two people were murdered in a grisly crime in Farmington, New Hampshire. A suspect, Timothy Verrill, was identified and placed in custody. His trial is upcoming but prosecutors are still looking for more evidence to support their case.

As part of this effort, they’ve convinced a judge to order Amazon to release all data from the Amazon Echo located in the room where police believe the murders took place. (CBS Boston)

A New Hampshire judge has “directed to produce” any recordings an Amazon Echo may have because it could contain evidence of a January 2017 double-murder. Prosecutors are looking for the two days worth of recording from the Echo in a Meaderboro Road, Farmington home where 47-year-old Christine Sullivan and 32-year-old Jenna Pellegrini were found dead.

The information from the Echo would also include if any cellphones were paired with it.

According to prosecutors, sometime between January 27 and 29, 2017, Sullivan and Pellegrini were murdered by 36-year-old Timothy Verrill. He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, along with other charges, and is in jail waiting for his trial in May 2019.

So what do they expect this Amazon Echo to cough up in terms of evidence? We all know the standard line from the major manufacturers who produce Alexi, Siri and “Okay Google.” They’re never “listening” or recording your activities until you tell them to, right? And they certainly wouldn’t partner up with any phones or other devices around the house without you knowing. Perish the thought!

But it sounds as if law enforcement believes there’s more hidden inside Alexa’s digital brain. They mention the possibility that the device was “paired” with any cellphones in the area. We know they can do that if we ask them to. My phone is paired with the Cortana on my Dell laptop so I can quickly access text messages without taking out my phone if I wish. But was their Alexa paired with their phones during the attack? Or might it have even been detecting the phone of the alleged killer while he was in the house? There’s a disturbing thought.

And what of the audio recordings they think might possibly be on the device. Unless one of the victims cried out for Alexa to call 911 while they were being killed, the Alexa isn’t supposed to be listening or recording anything right? All I’m saying is that I’ve never believed that these digital servants are as inert as the manufacturers claim they are when not in use. How would they hear you say “Alexa” and wake up if they weren’t already listening?

Assuming the police have the right guy, I hope he’s put away and some justice for the victims is delivered. And if information on their Echo can help do that, all the better. But if Amazon is going to fess up and let the police know that the device is recording more than we think it is, I think they should let everyone know.