Amazon claims First Amendment protection for Alexa digital assistant – even in a murder case

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Amazon.com Inc. is asserting its right not to hand over a user’s data in an Arkansas murder trial, stating that the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to privacy.

Amazon was first approached by police in December, when it was revealed they were working on a case concerning a man, Victor Collins of Bentonville, Arkansas, found murdered in a hot tub belonging to his friend James Bates. Nearby police had found an Amazon Echo device belonging to Bates, one they thought may have been privy to information pertinent to the case.

Amazon gave police the user’s purchase history and some personal information, but when asked to hand over audio sent to its cloud servers, the company refused and asked for a warrant. Amazon’s lawyers claim the recordings are protected by free speech under the U.S. constitution’s bill of rights, and that what a user says to its smart assistant, the Alexa Voice Service, is private and should be protected from government. At the same time Alexa itself should also be protected, said Amazon, because its response relates to the user’s privacy.

In a court filing, Amazon’s lawyers wrote, “It is well established that the First Amendment protects not only an individual’s right to speak, but also his or her ‘right to receive information and ideas.’” Furthermore, the lawyers explained, “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.”

If police have the right to attain a user’s information, Amazon said, this would have a chilling effect on the public, which is legally safeguarded from government listening in to what happens in the safety of their own homes. The company said that law enforcement would have to show a “compelling need” for the data that links Bates, who is the prime suspect in the case, to the murder.

In the court filing Amazon cites a case involving government requesting a bookstore to hand over Monica Lewinsky’s book purchases as part of an investigation into Bill Clinton. The court ruled that under the First Amendment, the government must “make a heightened showing to obtain the requested information.”

Amazon believes its own case is similar in protecting the government from looking “over the shoulder” of the public. Talking to the Associated Press, an Amazon spokesperson 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.”

Photo: Javi via Flickr