On July 12, 2019, Adam Reechard Crespo and his girlfriend, Silvia Galva, got into an argument at Crespo’s home in Hallandale Beach, Florida. What happened next remains unclear, but it ended with Galva stabbed through the chest.
Crespo said he pulled the blade from Galva’s chest and tried to stop the bleeding. It was too late though. Galva died, leaving police to rely solely upon the stories told by Crespo and Galva’s friend who said she overheard the fight.
That is, until police realized that there may have been a silent “witness” of sorts. Crespo had an Amazon Echo, commonly known as Alexa, in his home. The device was not actively in use at the time of the crime, but police believed it may have heard something that could shed light on the otherwise private final moments of Galva’s life. One month after the alleged crime was committed, police successfully obtained a warrant for those recordings and ultimately received them. Crespo was charged with murder.
The Amazon Echo is a voice activated AI virtual assistant that will tell you the weather, read you the news, or play your favorite song, among other things. But beyond its intended uses, the Echo has proved useful to law enforcement officers, offering a rare, inside look into the crucial moments before a crime was committed. The Amazon Echo made headlines for its role as a potential key witness in the investigations of a 2015 suspected murder in Arkansas and a 2017 New Hampshire double homicide.
In each of these cases, the conversation inevitably turned to privacy concerns as questions swirled about when and how conversations are recorded by the device. In response, a spokesperson for Amazon told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that conversations are only recorded and stored on the cloud when the Echo is triggered by a “wake word,” which is typically “Alexa.” The device also contains an optional “mute” button that blocks the device’s listening function.
Amazon’s Echo is just one of several technological devices that have proved helpful in recent criminal investigations. Law enforcement officers, for instance, attempted to use data from a Fitbit exercise tracker to trace the last movements of 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts of Brooklyn, Iowa, who went missing while out for a jog. Fitbit data similarly factored into the 2015 investigation of the shooting death of a 39-year-old Connecticut woman named Connie Dabate. Her husband, Richard Dabate, told police she was killed by an intruder, but police used her Fitbit data to attempt to poke holes in her husband’s story. The device tracked her final movements and provided an exact time of death that police say did not align with the timeline her husband presented.
Critics argue the use of this type of data in criminal investigations is an invasion of privacy much more akin to an Orwellian society than the pro-privacy America we have all come to know and enjoy. Meanwhile, proponents laud the technology as a revolutionary step in the perpetual quest for the truth in criminal cases. The reality is likely somewhere in between these two extremes.
One positive offered by the use of technology in criminal investigation is impartiality. Unlike human beings, Alexa’s “memory” cannot be colored by shock, trauma, or intimidation. Alexa serves as an extremely neutral and accurate witness. Additionally, these devices can give a voice to voiceless victims. So frequently, we are left with one-sided accounts of crimes. The victim is no longer alive to tell his or her side of the story. This can help law enforcement agencies piece together the events that lead to a victim’s death.
There are, however, notable limitations to technology’s usefulness in criminal investigations. The Amazon Echo, for example, only provides an audio recording, which is of limited use. In addition, technology is not always 100% accurate. A fitness tracker, for example, may add or subtract a few steps here and there. Further, the privacy concerns raised by critics are legitimate. Devices that can listen and record inside of the home undoubtedly interfere with the sanctity of private property.
Whether we like it or not, law enforcement agencies are using this information in criminal investigations and will likely continue to do so with increasing frequency as technology becomes more advanced and prevalent. As this happens, technology companies need to be more transparent and forthcoming with customers about the type of data collected and its potential uses. That way, customers can make informed decisions about how much privacy they are willing to surrender in exchange for the latest tech.
* Kate Flexter is an Associate Editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review.