With Hey Google, the walls really do have ears.
As virtual technology continues to progress and develop, smart tech products are becoming more ingrained into our lives. From taking on roles in the workplace to managing parts of your household, the influence and responsibility of virtual technology products are undeniable.
But, could this responsibility extend into a legal role?
Just imagine your Amazon Echo testifying on your behalf in court. Or worse, your Google Home providing evidence against you.
Virtual Home Devices
A virtual home device or smart device is a technological product that uses voice commands in order to carry out tasks for its user. These devices can perform a variety of functions, including, but not limited to: answering questions, searching for information online, and controlling other devices. They are typically awakened through customizable wake words or phrases. Such products including the ones listed above are Google Home, Alexa, Siri, or Amazon Echo.
These devices need to be on standby to listen out for their wake words. However, there is a possibility that, if needed, they could provide crucial evidence on the record as a legal witness in an investigation or legal case. This is especially so as many voice recordings processed within the product are retained in a cloud where it is stored.
So let’s explore whether virtual home devices can act as legal witnesses.
What constitutes a legal witness?
To answer whether these devices can be legal witnesses, we first need to define what, or who, a legal witness can be and this can differ as per local laws. However, this may not be as straightforward as one would think.
As per Hong Kong laws, a person should be competent to give evidence as a witness if they are of sound mind. Through interpretation, it can be assumed that virtual home technologies would not be technically permissible as witnesses, as they are not a ‘person’. Despite this, recordings from a home device could possibly be classified instead as documentary evidence from computer records in criminal proceedings.
There have been a few criminal cases within the U.S with regards to a legal case where a virtual home assistant provided a critical role in a legal investigation.
In November 2015, Victor Collins was found dead in a bathtub after a night of drinking with friends. The police pointed blame at suspect James Bates for the murder of his friend. They seized an Amazon Echo within the household, as they believed there may be evidence of what happened during that night. A warrant was then filed in order to access the electronic information stored within the virtual home assistant. However, Amazon refused to hand over the information, citing that they would not release consumer information unless there is a “valid and binding legal document properly served” on them. In the end, the suspect voluntarily allowed the information to be released, and the charges against him were ultimately dismissed.
Although bizarre, there are several other U.S criminal cases that involve evidence being locked within a virtual home device. The murder of two young women and another death of a woman in Florida by her partner, both involve an Amazon Echo that could possibly have witnessed the crime unfolding. However, these cases also cited the statement from Amazon whereby no customer information would be released without a legally binding order.
What does this mean?
So, while a virtual home device may have witnessed a crime, the company of said product may not be so willing to give up the information without the proper means. This is especially so with Amazon and the Amazon Echo.
However, this is not limited to Amazon. Many technology-based companies, such as Apple, have also refused to allow a potential suspect’s personal tech to be accessed for criminal trials. One famous example is Apple refusing a request from the FBI to hack an iPhone belonging to a suspect in the San Bernardino shootings in 2015.
So, if we ever need to access a virtual home device, we better be prepared with the right documents. But these legal precedents originate from the U.S, a country that depends on federal law. The application of these case laws may not be as easily transferable as you might think.
While the use of in-home virtual assistants as witnesses may sound like a big step forward in technological advancement; Collin’s attorney, suggests otherwise. She brought up the likely possibility that most of the information recorded on such virtual home devices could be easily misconstrued as something incriminating. This is especially so as smart home devices can possibly confuse certain words with another, as was the case when a woman in Portland was surprised to find that her Amazon Echo secretly recorded a conversation and sent it to a contact.
With the rise of cases revolving around the monitoring and recording of virtual home device users, it begs the question: are these products invading our privacy?
This issue was perfectly demonstrated during a Google Home Mini preview in October 2017. Google allowed the press attending the event to take the product home and review it. Much to the shock of one tech blogger, the Google Home Mini saved conversations and audio recordings throughout the whole day despite not being ‘woken’ by the wake commands. Google released a statement confirming the presence of a bug which was subsequently fixed before being sold publicly. Although it was corrected, this showed that a slight glitch could compromise a user’s privacy within his/her own home. Thus, putting a tremendous emphasis on the potential threat of virtual home devices.
To sum up, while virtual home devices cannot technically be ‘witnesses’ in the strict sense, they can still provide evidence in the form of stored information. However, this is subject to the product company’s stance on releasing private customer information against the will of its user.