Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg

What a Murder in Arkansas Means for Your Digital Privacy

Should you be worried about buying that voice-activated speaker? 

Last week, Apple unveiled its HomePod smart speaker, touting impressive sound quality and integration with Apple's Siri. The device joins offerings from Amazon and Google that promise to make our lives ever convenientand brings us one step closer to a future where everything we do leaves behind a digital trace.

My sister has an Amazon Echo, and with its snarky jokes and talent for memorizing your favorite music, it's undoubtedly cool. But as I was reporting on the implications of the internet of things for the latest episode of our Decrypted podcast (click here to subscribe on Apple Podcasts), all of these little interactions with the virtual assistant began to carry a different weight.

Here's some of the stuff we bring up in the show:

  • Not only is your voice recorded by these devices, but any background noise in your home may be as well. That is stored on Amazon's servers.
  • These devices may mistakenly start recording if they confuse normal speech for a command.
  • How much of your data could be subject to government intrusion?
  • How robust are protections against hackers?

By now, I'm used to the idea of the NSA snooping to fight terrorism…and whatever else they do. But what if our IoT data can be used against us for more routine criminal and civil cases? With 25 million people expected to buy a voice-first device this year, according to VoiceLabs, it could affect a lot of people.

And it's started already. Our episode begins with a murder that made some headlines a couple months ago. Investigators seized an Echo they found at the home of James Bates, who's currently being tried for the murder of Victor Collins, 47, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Amazon initially refused to hand over data from the device, but the defendant then gave law enforcement permission to access the records. That ended the brief standoff. The prosecution hasn't presented its case yet, so we don't know what (if anything) they found in those archives.  

And sure, I'm not a murder suspect, and chances are, you aren't either. But I also spoke to Kristina Bergman, CEO of Integris Software, a startup that helps tech firms comply with privacy regulations. She said that she's confident that these device makers wouldn't use the data for sinister purposes, but what if a hacker's able to break through the firewalls and use your speaker (or smart TV or internet-connected bed) to spy on you?

It all points to a future in which we'll be documented and tracked at all times. If that sounds like a book that Silicon Valley  loved to hate a few years back—and recently a movie that was met with terrible reviews, despite an all-star cast—well, maybe Dave Eggers wasn't so off-base after all.

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