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January 24, 2017

Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri: the New Star Witnesses in Discovery?

There are parts of our lives we assume are completely private, hidden from the world. We believe there is no record of these things, or that whatever exists could not be accessed by others.  But how much of our lives is really off-the-record today, and for how much longer? 

Recently, Arkansas police found an Amazon Echo unit at the scene of a murder.

Police have issued a warrant to Amazon to get data from the cloud on whatever was recorded by Alexa.  It's important to note that the Echo, similar to  Google Home, doesn't store much data locally - which means the ESI can only be obtained through the data host, Amazon.  In the case in question, the police did take the Echo unit itself, but possession of the Echo isn’t likely to be useful.  Police have two issues with finding data relevant to the crime.  First, Alexa doesn't store data locally.  Second, like similar digital assistants Google Home and Apple’s Siri, rather than constantly listening, Alexa only listens when it’s triggered using a keyword – in this case “Alexa” (or “Echo” or “Amazon”).  Unless someone in the room said something like “Alexa, call the police" triggering the device to record, it is unlikely to have saved any useful data.  There is a small possibility that the Alexa history might have something valuable in it and an even more remote possibility that someone triggered Alexa’s recording during the murder. As Alexa’s processes are all proprietary it’s impossible to know how much, if any, data is retained on the unit itself.  Amazon allegedly keeps recordings for 6 months, but this has not been verified.  They refused to hand over any information.

Alexa, Siri, and Google Home all make small recordings of audio and then upload them to Amazon, Apple, and Google's servers where the data are in turn stored.  This functionality is essential as each service learns and improves - a larger store of dictation means more for their algorithms to analyze.  It also means that these companies possess a larger dossier about you.  While cloud storage may make retrieval by third parties more challenging, that data still can be obtained when needed.

As our connected devices expand to integrate as well as possible with our lives, they are also creating records of everything that we do and that happens to us.  eDiscovery professionals know that increasingly, data is stored not on a local device. Instead, it is maintained in the cloud.  Whether it's Snapchat Spectacles, Siri's voice commands or your Nest thermostat, an increasing amount of data is being collected and held in the cloud.

From a corporate perspective, the proliferation of data points everywhere raises complicated issues about client and employee privacy, as employees and others bring devices into our physical work environment, and bring work into their personal spaces.  This only underscores the need for organizations to have a clear BYOD policy to ensure that employees understand what is expected of them regarding corporate data and their own devices.


Jonathan Swerdloff
Jonathan Swerdloff
Jonathan Swerdloff is a Consultant at Driven, Inc. Prior to joining Driven, Jonathan was a litigation associate at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed LLP, accumulating more than 10 years experience in eDiscovery that included managing large discovery projects, analysis of enterprise systems, and investigations into nontraditional data sources. Through his experience as a litigator and programmer, Jonathan focused primarily on creative problem solving with regard to all data types. He analyzed and produced complex enterprise systems and developed internal workflows for large litigations. He deployed Information Governance strategies, has extensive experience with structured data collection, analysis, and production, and has served as an expert witness. His experience also includes developing cost-saving legal processes, managing legal budgets, and supervising legal personnel. Jonathan is admitted to the bars of New York and Connecticut. He holds a J.D. from the Cardozo School of Law and an MPS from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he studied rapid prototyping and software development. Jonathan is also an adjunct professor at the Parsons School of Design, teaching a Masters-level course in regulatory and ethics contexts for product designers. Jonathan previously served as the Director of Legal Strategy at the Corporate Knowledge Strategies Forum