Alexa and the First Amendment

Amazon Echo Alexa privacy

In the booming fields of digital assistants and ubiquitous computing, a new legal battle is taking shape. Can a machine have the constitutional right to free speech? It recently came to light that Amazon was arguing just that. The case that sparked this latest round of legal sparring was the murder of a man whose alleged killer had an Amazon Echo nearby at the time of death. Investigators, armed with a search warrant, requested the recording data from Amazon, who decided to go to court to fight the release.

Digital assistants, like the Alexa Voice Service, which operates on the Echo, typically feature a passive “always-on” mode of operation. When the operational word is spoken (in this case, “Alexa”), the assistant moves into an active mode in order to respond to the request. Depending on the device and the settings chosen by the user, the recordings are stored for an indefinite length of time by default.

In this case, Amazon recently filed a motion to quash the subpoena. They argued that recordings of the user interacting with the Echo and Alexa’s response to queries are both protected by the First Amendment, in the first case of the user, and in the second case of Amazon. This highlights another ongoing battle between convenience and technology. While voice-activated cloud providers like Amazon provide an undoubtedly convenient source of information for consumers, the “always-on” function leaves little room for privacy. In an increasingly connected world, corporations have become interested third parties, mediating between the rights of consumers and the law enforcement activities of the government. How the case of Alexa’s First Amendment rights is resolved will no doubt add to the legal complexity of modern technology.