In January 2017, the bodies of 32-year-old Jenna Pellegrini and 48-year-old Christine Sullivan were found under a backyard tarp at a home in Farmington, New Hampshire. Each woman had suffered multiple stab wounds. Among the evidence collected at the home was an Amazon Echo smart speaker (commonly referred to as Alexa), which the prosecution believes may have recorded crucial sounds during at least one of the murders.
Last week, a spokesperson for Amazon said that the retail giant will not release information “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.” But it looks like that information will soon be on its way. Amazon was ordered by Judge Steven Houran to release all recordings, as well as any relevant data, such as whether anyone’s phone was linked to the Echo device. A Boston criminal defense lawyer can help you determine how to proceed if you’ve been charged with a crime.
“The court directs Amazon.com to produce forthwith to the court any recordings made by an Echo smart speaker with Alexa voice command capability,” wrote Judge Houran, “from the period of January 27, 2017 to January 29, 2017, as well as any information identifying cellular devices that were paired to that smart speaker during that time period.”
Timothy Verrill was arrested and charged with the murders of Pellegrini and Sullivan. Verrill, an acquaintance of Sullivan’s boyfriend, pleaded not guilty to the double murder charges. According to surveillance video, he knew the home’s security code and had been there with both women prior to the night of the murder. Investigators believe that Alexa may have been activated by “wake words” or someone saying “Alexa” from its location in the kitchen, where they believe Sullivan’s murder was committed.
The involvement of tech in criminal cases is quickly becoming commonplace. In October, a Fitbit contributed to a murder suspect’s arrest, and Amazon had to produce data from another Echo device in a 2015 murder investigation in Bentonville, Arkansas. Although Amazon argued its First Amendment rights in that case, the defendant consented to the release of data. A MA criminal defense attorney can help you protect your rights if you’ve been charged with a crime.
Privacy vs. Information
Amazon also attempted to avoid this most recent request, saying it was in violation of customer privacy, but Judge Houran disagreed. The argument of privacy vs. information isn’t expected to disappear any time soon. In fact, in a world where nothing is considered to be of value unless it’s recorded and/or shared, the battle has likely only just begun.
Smart devices, such as Alexa, Siri and Google’s Home assistant, are in millions of homes across the country. In addition to playing music and answering questions—such as what’s the weather today and who was the first female supreme court justice—smart devices record what people say. And that recording doesn’t just disappear into the ether. It is sent to a server, where it is…well, we can’t answer that for certain. What is happening to these recordings, and who is listening to our most intimate conversations?
I guess the better question is, what is your privacy worth to you?
Altman & Altman, LLP—Boston’s Premier Criminal Defense Law Firm
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