Docket #17-001: Activism and the Citizen Lobbyist

Citizen Lobbyist: A How-to Manual for Making Your Voice Heard in Government

Amanda Knief is the Author of Citizen Lobbyist

Thanks to a wedding, this episode is going to be a short one. Coming up:

I’m Geoffrey Blackwell, and don’t get me wrong, I’m glad last year is behind us, and I don’t want to be a downer, but I’m already certain that before the dumpster fire that was 2016 managed to burn itself out, a few embers drifted over to the nearby tire pile and you can already smell the burning rubber. Yeah, it’s gonna be bad. And you’re listening to Docket #17-001 of All Too Common Law.

Opening Statement

One of the unfortunate aspects of our system of government is that societal change inevitably outstrips the law’s ability to keep pace. One of the first episodes of this podcast dealt with a Supreme Court case involving police searches of cell phone data and my concerns over whether the Court had a proper understanding of the lives of average Americans.

Now we have a fresh reminder of just how important it is that we do everything we can to make sure the law keeps up with how we live our day-to-day lives.

A controversy has erupted around Alexa, Amazon’s version of the Google assistant. Back in November of 2015, a man was killed while visiting the home of one of the Amazon Echo’s early adopters. As part of the investigation into the killing, the police served a search warrant on Amazon, seeking any data recorded by the device at the time of the murder.

There are a number of problems with this request. The most glaring issue is that the Echo only starts recording audio when it hears its “wake word:” “Alexa.” So unless the killer decided to order the first season of How to Get Away With Murder as he was committing the crime, Alexa probably didn’t record anything at all.

It is likely that the police were unaware of the exact details of how the Amazon Echo works its magic and just assumed that the device streams all audio back to Amazon’s servers all the time.

These sorts of technical issues seem minor, but I think this case shows just how important it is that law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges know how the technology we use every day works.

Because you need probable cause to get a search warrant. And if a police officer and a judge are under the impression that Amazon’s Echo is streaming everything it hears back to Amazon, then sure, they’ll think it’s more probable than not that that data would contain evidence of the crime that happened here. But if it only streams audio in very limited circumstances, and the police have no indication that it was streaming anything at all back to amazon at the time? Then it would seem to me that it’s highly unlikely that the Echo data would contain evidence of the crime. Which could render the search warrant unconstitutional.

I don’t know how our legal system will adapt so that it can keep staying only a few steps behind, but we’re going to have to come up with something so that we don’t wind up fully ushering in the era of Big Brother.