Amazon Vs. The Arkansas Police: Is Privacy the Price of Justice?

12:43 pm
0 Brooke Stevens
A recent police demand for Amazon to hand in a user’s recordings to aid in a murder trial regenerates the privacy vs. justice dilemma.

Is justice more important than privacy? The police department in Bentonville, Arkansas thinks it is, but tech giant, Amazon, begs to differ.

The Bentonville police seems to believe it can tell one of the largest e-commerce companies in the world what to do. The police department, currently investigating the case of a murder that was allegedly conducted by James Andrew Bates, has issued a warrant ordering the e-commerce giant to release private recordings of Bates in its holding. The recordings were taken with the company’s Amazon Echo device, which apparently, records users for technical identification purposes practically all the time.

Amazon Echo is a smart speaker developed by Amazon. In its default mode, the device responds to the name “Alexa,” which is its “wake word,” and can be changed to either “Amazon” or “Echo” at the user’s choice. As it turns out, once the wake word is said – the device starts recording. All recordings are then automatically sent to Amazon’s cloud for storage. A user can access their recordings and choose to delete them whenever they please.

Amazon Echo
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Even though technically the pronunciation of the wake word is needed in order for Echo to start recording, it is not uncommon for smart devices of this kind to accidentally respond to random background noises. And, as it seems, this is exactly what the police is now counting on. In hopes to discover new bits of crucial information regarding the murder, for which Bates is to go to trial next year, the Bentonville police wishes to access the recordings made on the suspect’s Echo device and see if they contain anything helpful.

Amazon, however, refuses to support the police’s approach. As for the moment, the company refuses to comply with the police warrant, commanding it to release the recordings, citing user privacy claims. The only thing Amazon has been willing to do, is provide the police with Bates’ account details and purchasing information. According to a statement given by an Amazon representative to Engadget, Amazon “will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.” The company’s approach aligns with the one cited by the defendant’s lawyer, Kimberly Weber. According to Weber, “You have an expectation of privacy in your home, and I have a big problem that law enforcement can use the technology that advances our quality of life against us.”

The specific push-and-pull between Amazon and the Arkansas police makes a much larger discussion resurface: the one of justice vs. privacy, and specifically, the privacy of people’s digital information. This is still a fairly uncharted territory for the law, and as we see time and time again – the restrictions and codes of conduct regarding matters that involve it are still rather vague and debatable. As the use of smart devices for various daily purposes keeps on increasing, and becomes a central part of our lives – we all have no choice but to face these questions and consider the possible repercussions. It just might be that soon enough, searching ones phone will be just as legitimate as searching their home.


Amazon is an American international electronic commerce company with headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Amazon started as an online bookstore, but soon diversified, selling DVDs, VHSs, CDs, video games, electronics, apparel, furniture, food, toys, and jewelry.