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A Murder Case Highlights The Amazon Echo’s Big Privacy Concerns

Local police are in search of the recorded snippets of conversation Alexa sometimes records.

Posted on December 27, 2016, at 5:15 p.m. ET

Staff / Reuters

The Amazon Echo speaker you got for Christmas may have privacy concerns in the package — the device, whose always-listening AI is one of its key features, could record and store information you wouldn't want law enforcement to access.

A report today from The Information details how police in Bentonville, Arkansas, have issued a warrant for the audio records of the Amazon Echo speaker belonging to James Bates, a suspect in an ongoing murder investigation. Amazon has handed over Bates' purchase history and account information to law enforcement, but it has declined to release his speaker's records.

In February, police arrested Bates, age 31, and charged him with the murder of Victor Collins, age 47, according to local news. According to a medical examiner, Collins was strangled in a hot tub. Bates pleaded not guilty in April and made bail shortly after, but the case will go to trial in early 2017. Both men worked for Walmart, which is headquartered in Bentonville.

The Echo speaker and its embedded virtual assistant Alexa work by continuously recording ambient conversation, even when a human isn't directly interacting the speaker. That's how it's able to activate at the call of "Alexa." While Amazon does not save records of ambient conversations, anything you say to the speaker after activating it is stored on Amazon's servers.

Bentonville Police said that music had been streaming through the night of the murder, according to The Information, which means the speaker might have been inadvertently activated. It's these recordings that police are after.

Amazon doesn't seem willing to budge. In a statement, the company told BuzzFeed News, "Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us."

Police have made extensive use of cell phone records to establish a timeline for the murder, though they have been able to take some data from the Echo without Amazon's help, The Information reports.

The speaker and its virtual assistant continue to grow in popularity, so Alexa will be recording more conversations in more homes and therefore posing privacy concerns in more civil and criminal cases. Amazon sold out of the Echo during the holiday season, despite increased production. And customers rave about Alexa, going so far as to propose to her.

Wow I guess everyone in the US got Fitbits and Amazon Echoes today

The Bentonville police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.