Amazon Echo murder case spotlights question of what ‘always on’ actually means

“Some people have wondered if smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo devices, or its closest contender, the Google Home, are constantly capturing audio data, rather than just listening when the right wake word is uttered,” Jordan Novet reports for VentureBeat. “Now a court case is bringing the issue to the fore, and it could potentially show whether that’s actually happening.”

“The case, involving the investigation of a homicide in Bentonville, Arkansas, was unearthed earlier today by The Information,” Novet reports. “The original affidavit for a search warrant from Bentonville police detective corporal Josh Woodhams clearly conveys uncertainty as to what exactly the speakers record: ‘The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or ‘Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’” being issued, which is uploaded to’s servers at a remote location. It is believed that these records are retained by and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.'”

“In this case, Amazon complied with the search warrants ‘but only supplied a portion of what was requested,’ Woodhams wrote. Presumably the detective was hoping for something more along the lines of a constant stream of audio from the two-day span that he had asked Amazon about in the warrant,” Novet reports. “This case may end up raising questions about how much audio smartphones, tablets, and even earphones that listen for ‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Siri’ are actually recording.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: It’s always been the biggest drawback for devices like Amazon’s Echo; how much listening are they doing? Are users bugging their own homes?


  1. Seems like we’ve met big brother and it is ourselves. How can services like amazon work unless they are listening all the time on the off chance that a command that it understands is spoken. People voluntarily report the minutiae of their lives, their activities in the present tense into Facebook. The emphasis is that this is voluntary. Certainly the NSA and other law enforcement agencies, as well as black hat hackers would never exploit these technologies for their own purposes…

    1. “How can services like amazon work unless they are listening all the time on the off chance that a command that it understands is spoken.”

      If the listening is done intelligently and solely within the device without being sent to a remote server, then there are ways to protect the privacy of the user, but of course that’s not how Amazon operates and they always seem to opt for gathering as much data as possible into their servers.

      Once data has has been sent from your device to a server, you no longer have any control over what then happens to that data and in many cases will not even be able to find out how that data is used or stored..

      1. It appears many people really are that lazy.

        Exactly how many is up for discussion. Since Amazon isn’t reporting sales figures, it may not be as many as Amazon would have us think. Recently some Amazon rep mentioned millions of users of two particular devices. Well… let’s take that with a grain of salt and say it’s a million for one device. Divide that by a typical family of 4 and that comes to 250,000 users. Even if that figure is doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, it’s not an impressive sales figure.

        Regardless of just how many people are using these devices, in time hopefully, people may realize just what and how much of a price they are really paying for “convenience”.

        1. Figures can be speculated all we want for Echo, but it is not the only device Amazon offers that provides the Alexa assistant. Currently we have the Echo, Dot, Tap and the Fire TV/TV stick and that’s just from Amazon. Since Amazon opened up their API to other OEMs you will probably see a larger variety of Internet connected hardware that will support Alexa commands in the future.

  2. Think about the company you’re buying from. Amazon wants you to buy everything from them online. This device is designed to increase sales at from your house. Google wants to sell targeted ads to a variety of companies. Their Google home device is designed to mine you for data used to help them target ads to you.

    In neither case is your satisfaction in using the device a priority to them. Nor is your privacy.

    Look for Facebook to sell one of these soon. They are all about selling your personal and family details to advertisers too.

  3. Several years ago I noticed that YouTube was capturing my voice data on my Android phone without any special command. The words I said where parsed and matched with advertisers. For example, if I said I was hungry for tacos an advertisement for Taco Bell would appear on my TV a spot or two later. I tested this for several keywords and products. One of the most interesting was when I said I needed a vacation. A local travel agent appeared as an advertisement.

    This voice matching to TV advertisement only occurred when YouTube was open on my Android phone. Since YouTube is owned by Google and since the operating system used on Android phones is owned by Google then this spying could of been a Google initiative. There is a possibility it could of been third-party malware exposing some flaw in YouTube. Regardless of who or what caused this invasion of privacy, it freaked me out so much that I stopped using Google products.

    I would be shocked if Google’s or Amazon’s home devices do not record everything said.

      1. Soon after this incident I got the iPhone 5, so it probably occurred during the summer of 2012. I probably had that Android phone from 2009ish to 2012, and did get malware probably in 2011. The carrier told me to update to the latest OS, and that greatly improved the battery life. The rep said the phone probably had malware

        At the time of this YouTube snooping incident, the battery life on the phone seemed to be normal, but I’m careful not to surf with aps open/in stasis or cookies allowed. If it was third-party malware from an advertising group then my guess is they would be listening all the time and battery drain would be significant. So, this points to Google being the culprit.

        1. Those Amazon and Google listening devices are plugged into the wall, so they wouldn’t be restrained by batteries like a smartphone.

        2. I’m sure these companies have improved their audio compression technologies since 2012. This means less data is being sent. They could even parse sentences right on the device and send only keyword text. So, maybe they don’t exactly record complete verbal sentences, but keywords like: new car, flowers, birthday, trip, etc.

        1. I would have to agree with your assessment that keywords are most likely sent rather than actual conversation. Thinking reasonably, with so many Android devices out there if Amazon/Google actually received raw conversation streams it would probably be on the order of the entire text of every book in the library of congress a few times a day if not in a few minutes or hours. Your YouTube incident sounds like an interesting case of being context aware specifically tailored to show the right ad because you are able to see it. I find it rather unlikely that the Echo or Google Home would do the same since they do not have any video display to take advantage of to show ads. They could possibly use the speaker I suppose but until someone claims their Echo/Home is spewing ads periodically without prompting it is simply a waste of data resources.

    1. Be prepared to wait for a long time. In the meantime Siri will seem autistic in comparison to Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana. Perhaps Apple will just have to create it’s own search engine or team up with Duck Duck Go.

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