The Police Are Requesting Data from People’s Smart Speakers at an Alarming Rate

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by Robert Wheeler

Remember all those conspiracy theorists and Luddites who told you they didn’t want Echo or Alexa devices in their home because those gadgets were spying on them? Well, they were right. That’s not even up for debate. 

If you were one of those friends who mocked them and called them crazy, you were wrong. Just admit it.

If you are bewildered by what you just read, please, read on.

Nearly ten years ago, writers like Brandon Turbeville and others were warning that “smart technology” and the “internet of things” were being developed for surveillance and manipulation purposes. (Despite the companies’ claims of greater convenience.) We’ve been in a virtual dragnet for years.

Those devices and technologies are ubiquitous and are being used to soak up data, private and personal conversations, interactions, and even movement. All of this openly discussed in mainstream outlets. Lately, this website has reported on the Nest, your phone’s location tracker, and other “smart” technology. We’ve even talked about how we all have “surveillance scores.

Take a look at WIRED’s article by Sidney Fussell, “Meet the Star Witness: Your Smart Speaker.” In this article, Fussell details a murder case in which an Amazon Echo device was presented as evidence.

He writes, 

In July 2019, police rushed to the home of 32-year-old Silvia Galva. Galva’s friend, also in the home, called 911, claiming she overheard a violent argument between Galva and her boyfriend, 43-year-old Adam Crespo. The two lived together in Hallandale Beach, Florida, about 20 miles from Miami.

When officers arrived, Galva was dead, impaled through her chest by the 12-inch blade at the sharp end of a bedpost. Police believe Crespo tried to drag Galva from their bed. She held onto the bedpost to resist, but the sharp end snapped, somehow killing her. Police charged Crespo with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $65,000 bail, awaiting trial. In the months since the arrest, Crespo’s lawyer has presented a surprising piece of evidence in his defense: recordings from a pair of Amazon Echo speakers.

“I had a lot of interviews where people said, ‘Oh, are you aware that this could be the first time Alexa recordings are going to be used to convict somebody of murder?'” says Christopher O’Toole, Crespo’s lawyer. “And I actually thought of it the opposite way, that this could be the first time an Amazon Alexa recording is used to exonerate somebody and show that they’re innocent.”

When police and prosecutors collect smart home or speaker data, it’s typically used as evidence against suspects. The Hallandale Beach Police Department filed a subpoena for Crespo’s speakers, as they may have picked up audio of the argument Galva’s friend overheard.

The incident shows the growing role of smart home devices and wearables in police investigations.

In 2016, police in Bentonville, Arkansas, requested Amazon Echo data in connection with a man’s death, believed to be the first such request. Amazon initially tried to block the request, but later handed over the data. A murder charge against the defendant was later dropped, but the speaker, smart home, and wearable data has figured into multiple cases since then.

Requests for smart and wearable data has increased rapidly.

Fussell continues,

Earlier this month, Amazon said it had received more than 3,000 requests from police for user data in the first half of this year, and complied almost 2,000 times. That was a 72 percent increase in requests from the same period in 2016, when Amazon first disclosed the data, and a 24 percent jump in the past year alone.

Amazon doesn’t provide granular data on what police are seeking, but Douglas Orr, head of the criminal justice department at the University of North Georgia, says police now look for smart home data as routinely as data from smartphones. Data on a smartphone often points officers towards other devices, which they then probe as the investigation continues.

By amending a search warrant, police can “keep going to keep collecting data,” Orr says. “That usually leads to an Echo or at least some other device.”

As Orr explains, officers are getting more savvy about smart home devices, creating templates that simplify requesting data. Police departments often share these templates, he says, tailoring requests for the specifics of the case they’re investigating.

Google’s Nest unit reported increasing police demands for data from its smart speakers through 2018. Google then stopped reporting Nest data separately, including such requests in its broader corporate transparency report, which shows increased requests for Google user data.

In their terms of service, most major apps and websites include a clause warning users that companies may hand over their data if requested by the government. Law enforcement agencies file subpoenas or search warrants for data, detailing to judges what evidence they expect to find on the devices and how it may serve the investigation. Amazon and Google both notify users of a request for data unless the order itself forbids it. Any number of entities can request user data, but the companies say they prioritize requests based on urgency.

“Things like Homeland Security, they’re going to take high priority,” explains Lee Whitfield, a forensic analyst. “Other law enforcement requests will come in under that. And then things like divorce cases or civil cases, they have a lower ranking.”

In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands” from law enforcement and referred WIRED to its policy on government requests. A Google spokesperson also referred WIRED to its updated policy on requests.

Forensic experts tell WIRED that information from the devices is valued because it can offer a timeline of a person’s activities, their location, if they’re alone, and can verify statements made during questioning.

. . . . .

Orr has studied the types of data police can pull from smart speakers like the Amazon Echo. “Voice clips are only the beginning,” he says. Speakers keep time-stamped logs of user activity. Police can examine these logs to get a sense of what someone was doing around the time of an alleged crime.

Fussell then provides another example of how these devices are used by law enforcement.

He writes,

Consider a potential suspect who can’t prove where they were at 11 pm on a Thursday, because they live alone. Something as simple as ordering pizza through a speaker would show the time and location of the request and, if voice recognition is enabled, who made the request. “It might be benign information that someone was ordering a pizza, but it might also be an alibi for somebody,” Orr says.

Police increasingly rely on wearables and smart devices to verify the claims people make during an investigation. Sometimes, the tools can reveal a lie.

Heather Mahalik, a forensics instructor, recalls a Florida case in which a man killed his wife, then tried to impersonate her. The husband sent texts and Facebook messages from his wife’s phone in an attempt to blur the timeline of her disappearance. While the woman’s phone activity continued, her Apple Watch showed a sudden drop in heart rate activity that the husband claimed was due to a dead battery. Activity on the man’s phone synced perfectly with when he used the wife’s phone to post to Facebook. Her phone showed no activity except for when the husband picked it up to post, with timestamps matching his activity to the use of the wife’s phone.

“We were able to tell from his device that he would pick up the phone, take 18 steps, and it corresponded with the time he posted a Facebook post,” Mahalik says.

Connecting information from multiple devices is a common practice, analysts say. Information on one device can suggest evidence on another. This ability to string together discoveries leads to what another expert calls a phased approach to digital forensics.

“They ask for something, the investigation moves along, they find something else interesting, and then they request the next thing,” says Whitfield, the forensic analyst.

O’Toole, Crespo’s lawyer, says police subpoenaed Crespo’s social media accounts right away, then requested his voice recordings about four weeks later. Officers wrote in the search warrant that the speaker data may include “audio recordings capturing the attack on victim Silvia Crespo.”

O’Toole says he intends to introduce the smart speaker recordings in his client’s favor. Via email, a spokesperson for Hallandale Beach Police confirmed the case was still active but did not provide further comment.

O’Toole says smart speaker recordings are part of several cases he’s working on, including a divorce in which a woman subpoenaed data from a smart speaker that may have picked up the sounds of her husband with another woman..

Whitfield says police are becoming more savvy about the information in the smart speakers’ activity logs. He recalls a case where police found drugs in a household with multiple residents. Officers identified a suspect after seizing data from a smart speaker. Its log not only listed recent queries related to drugs but identified who spoke them. Google and Amazon speakers let users create profiles so the devices recognize their individual voices. This information helped police identify the suspect.

“I just don’t see this going away,” Whitfield says. “I think this is going to be more and more prolific as time goes on.”

Whitfield is right.

It will never go away.

Advertisement of these technological devices as a tool for convenience was a manipulative tactic to introduce technological devices for their real purpose – the tracking, monitoring, and recording of citizens so that no action – no matter how small – goes unnoticed. We are already living in a surveillance state and it’s only going to get worse.

Once begun, this bell cannot be unrung.

What are your thoughts on things you said in your own home being used against you by the police? Are you taking any steps to protect yourself from this type of data being collected? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The Police Are Requesting Data from People\'s Smart Speakers at an Alarming Rate
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27 Responses

  1. Dunno what any of this has to do with preparedness.
    Yes law enforcement is going to collect the data. Nobody wants it right up to the point to where it’s your ________ who got murdered. Then it’s a bunch of upset folks “demanding” it.
    You don’t want it then don’t buy it or own it. Too simple.
    “Smart” anything’s and definitely device’s that’s their entire function is to listen to you.
    Get yourself on one side of the fence on this and stay there. Only thing you’ll get from straddling it is a sore crotch.

    1. What does this have with preparedness?

      The government has decided that in an emergency it can take any food that a prepper has stored up. If you have one of these devices in your home and it blabs to outsiders that you have stored up food, if that info gets to the govt, and it most likely will, they can come and take away your preps. If you mention that you have a prepared bugout place, that too can be taken from you.

      Other than our phones and computers, we don’t have any “smart” devices in our home, and we don’t plan to get any. Even on our phones, we have turned off GPS and location services—they can still track us, but their tracking is no more accurate than tracking a flip phone.

      If we get a video doorbell, and there’s good reason for us to get one, we plan to get one that we can control, not part of a surveillance system like RING. That’ll take a little extra work to get it set up, but I’d prefer that to being recorded by Amazon or whoever every time I come to the door.

      1. Wow my level of importance is wayyy down from anything your discussing.

        Food – I don’t even have the amount a single small size Dollar General store contains. I’d say most semis contain more than most “preppers” have stored in their houses. Now how many semis containing food are rolling by today? How many restaurants are there within 50 miles with stored stuff?

        Ammo- hmm well let’s just take my agency and just my locale and without giving away exact numbers and getting myself in a wreck let’s say roughly 11K 5.56 20K 9mm and 2K 12ga stored and used annually and that’s just one place.
        I know most professional competitive shooters have their delivered by pallets. Do y’all? Ever watch “Uncle Ted” and his hunting/shooting show? He’s got little storage units holding pallets of it. That ain’t this poor boy.

        Toilet Paper – let’s see the side of the family with the cleaning business stores and uses over1K rolls a year and that’s just one of 40-50 cleaning businesses In the city.

        My bugout place: ahh America the home of the 5 acre dream. Im pretty sure someone who has 83 million acres nationally and that again state controlled doesn’t need the run down single wide porta pottied fence needs fixin 2 dead cars in the pasture hideaway.

        So unless y’all got some amazing numbers your just not that important.
        I’d just assume stay unimportant.

      2. Spent the past 23 years installing alarm and surveillance systems. My advice to all who want to put surveillance systems in their home.
        DON”T INSTALL WIRELESS CAMERAS! DON’T INSTALL ANYTHING THAT USES WiFi!
        Install hardwired (coaxial cable) cameras into a stand alone DVR. 1080p camera prices have come down dramatically since 4k came out.
        For do-it-yourselfers an 8 channel DVR, a dedicated power supply and eight 1080p cameras can be purchased for $300 – $400. A box of cable is about $100.
        One would be more aware of what’s around one’s home with cameras; I know I am.

        1. Have a specific brand in mind that isn’t susceptible to a supply-chain attack from a foreign government?

  2. Yeah we don’t use any of that because the reasons you give above. No Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or anything else.
    We have all location data, Bluetooth, etc switched off on our phones. I’ve written to mainstream media & asked them to delete my accounts & comments. I’ll only make comments on sites like this occasionally and linked to various encrypted email accounts under a pseudonym. I’m sure they can still track but not with the same mass of data. We make it as difficult as possible for them & sometimes swap mobile phs just to do their heads in & blur the lines.
    It’s amazing that such criminal corporations & governments that are supposed to be transparent to the people are instead more & more opaque while they want to know every tiny little thing about us.
    If I seem paranoid then just remember this…
    “ just because your paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you”….especially when they are.

  3. It’s really easy to avoid a large part of data collection. 1. Don’t buy anything with “smart” in the name except for maybe smart water. 2. Use a wired cable for internet and don’t go blabbing about your personal life all over social media. 3. Don’t go randomly clicking on any pretty picture you see and downloading a bunch of browser add ons.

    I have to ask though, from the original article, how in the world did a spear get that close to a bed? The news story said it was a spear and specifically mentioned a blade and a shaft. Shouldn’t that be hanging on the wall?

  4. I guess that’s one advantage to my developing deafness (congenital nerve deafness my doctor diagnosed), is that I’ve ceased to upgrade stereo components and still use an older flip phone.

  5. Like any new technology, while it offers benefits to the user, in a police state govt without effective constitutional controls and lacking a moral people unwilling to cross the privacy line, the new technology WILL be used against us when convenient. I try to minimize any smart technology in my home for that very reason. Opinions of mine that may be acceptable today will be used against me as acceptable opinions by the govt change.

    1. I’m not 100% convinced you can blame “police state” alone when people actually go out of their way to purchase, install and upgrade these devices in their homes, vehicles and workplaces.
      It’s being used by businesses already and even your dr will try and access it one day in the name of medical science to figure out what ails you. Maybe your religious leaders, kids teachers etc. too who knows where the boundaries are?
      The data exists for reasons.
      THE PEOPLE have to stay up and ensure privacy. They often foolishly believe the government will automatically do it because “Constitution” or more correctly “Bill of Rights”.
      Though a worthy goal that’s just not realistic.
      As a former investigator I understand the quest for the truth but if it’s off limits it’s off limits. However if it’s within grasp then why would I not? The People have to decide.

  6. I do not care what they are offering me for free. THERE IS ALWAYS A CATCH. And that catch is your personal, private info. Why do people want to go on facebook and blab all their private info to the world? You get what you deserve. There are no Smart electronics in this house. NO NEST, I answer my own door. NO FACEBOOK, if I want to know something about my neighbor, I use a device called a TELEPHONE and use my voice to actually talk to her. Or, I physically pick my ass up, drive up the hill and sit in her living room and do something called visiting. I do NOT use GOOGLE ANYTHING!!!! And I surprisingly physically TURN MY PHONE OFF!!! I don’t miss a thing. I actually use a remote control to watch tv, except that most remotes don’t work any more, so again, I pick my ass up off the couch and walk 4 feet to the television / sound system and adjust the volume or put a new DVD in the machine. Use of those invasive products is gonna make it real easy for the PTB to arrest you, use your own words against you, lock you in your home, and out of your frig, etc.

    1. We also very RARELY go to a doctor. Have no use for their voodoo. Have been extremely healthy since I gave them up. Do not belong to any religious organization either. They distort God’s word. Just read it for ourselves.

    2. This is good that you’ve chosen a side of the fence to be on.
      I’ve no issue with either way.
      I’ve only an issue with those who try and use it then pretend to want privacy.
      It’s like hanging out with my aunt. Everyone knows she tells everything about everyone. Those that continue to hang out with her need not complain when she does what she does. Too simple.

  7. Do not allow ANY so-called smart or network connected devices in your home!
    The wife has alternately acquired these robot sweepers, roomba and the like. I ran a packet trace on it while it was operating – it relayed the interior dimensions of our house back to “home base”, along with a significant amount of photos. She got a wifi enabled thermostat – same thing. It’s sending our heating/cooling profiles home. Even a d***ed TV with wifi capabilities was relaying viewing habits.
    I sent them all back.
    The only thing remaining are our phones and laptops: and I don’t trust them as far as I can throw a fit…

  8. I want to know, and the article doesn’t say, how these recordings were made in the first place. I don’t see people accessing the microphone button on their Fire stick while killing someone else. I don’t like, and don’t trust these devices in any form. But this article is basically saying that these things are recording everything, all the time. And being saved somewhere. WTF??!! This country is so screwed, we’ve gone so far downhill I don’t see us ever getting back to the peak of the “shining city on a hill”. The left has made sure that everything, everywhere has become a total cr*pfest. I weep and pray for our Country.

  9. I got an iPhone to facetime with my grandchildren. Noticed that EVERYTHING is uploaded to the cloud. Isn’t that great?
    Noticed that one has to be signed in to the phone before it will upload.
    Haven’t been signed in since. Took 30 days for uploaded stuff to be deleted at my request.
    Have no idea if that stuff has been deleted as I will not sign in to check.

  10. We don’t have any technologies like that in or around our home. I keep speakers/microphones turned off on all my digital/computer devices. I don’t have a cell phone. My husband has one for work, it gets plugged in & shut off when he is not working. We don’t even get reception inside our house, if he needs to use it he has to go outside.

  11. While I do not agree with all this capturing of data. Is is likely that these devices can be used just as much in your defence, as in your prosecution. There are many cases where someone is home alone and has no other alibi. In the past, a biased case could be built. With all this tracking and recording, an innocent person is much less likely to be convicted in my opinion.

    As I said at the start, I personally do not agree or like that they do record people with these devices. But offering a contrary view of police getting access is a bad thing.

    1. That’s an interesting point, John. If they can use the devices offensively against you, your defense attorney should be able to use them on your behalf. I hadn’t considered that.

      1. Since public defenders are already, universally, going with plea bargains, it is just a matter of time before the cost of a proper legal defence will be swamped out for who lacking substantial resources to prepaid a lawyer.
        It is silly to worry about a smart speaker when one already has a smartphone and home network spying on them.
        The smarts are in the network, not the I/O devices. like smart speakers.
        One should always assume that all microphones and cameras are always on and listening and watching, because memory is very cheap, and easy to fill will evidence to be sequestered in the future.

  12. 1. Get the hell out of the US.
    2. Absolutely have no social media accounts.
    3. Don’t use any device, including washer, dryer frig with smart technology. Wrap lead around your smart watt meter.
    Disable google and related apps on your smart phone.
    Turn it off when not in use and wrap in 1/4″ lead sheath.
    4. Don’t participate in social media and never broadcast your personal life to anyone. Period.
    The Great Reset presently underway, will INDEED lead to the death of many people, especially those foolish enough to poo poo this stuff. Learning the unfamiliar and being faced with imminent danger never seen before is a hard one for many people. They can’t seem to grasp or comprehend its their life endangered and its serious serious business.
    Suspicion and avoidance can save your life, should it be over done, you’ve lost nothing…… but if never and you need to be aware, its too late and too little!
    If your life has value to you, treat as such. Politicians and corporations won’t!

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