On the night of November 21, 2015, James Bates invited a few friends over to watch the game. The friends spent the evening at Bates’ drinking beer, taking shots of vodka, and soaking in Bates’ hot tub, but at some point the evening turned deadly.
Sean Henry was the first to leave Bates’ after the game, while Bates, Victor Collins and Owen McDonald decided to stay behind and keep drinking. McDonald decided to call it a night at around 12:30 AM. McDonald’s wife was able to confirm that he had walked home from Bates’, who lived less than two miles down the road, around that time.
According to Bates, McDonald hadn’t left at 12:30 as he claims. Bates says he went to sleep around 1 AM, leaving McDonald and Collins in the hot tub.
The following morning Bates claims that he woke up to find Collins floating face down in the hot tub. He quickly dialed 911 to report the incident. Bates allowed investigators to search the home. The hot tub water had been tinted red and Collin showed signs of an altercation. His eye had been blackened, his lips were swollen, and blood appeared to be pouring out of his nose and mouth. Though it appeared that someone had hosed down the perimeter of the hot tub, blood splatter belonging to Collins was found on the hot tub cover.
Bates was further questioned about the events that transpired at his home the night prior to finding Collins dead in his hot tub. Small scratches were spotted on Bates’ hands and a broken vodka bottle, along with Collins’ broken glasses, found at the scene indicated that there had been a struggle, followed by a clean-up effort.
McDonald was also questioned about his whereabouts that night. He explained that he walked home. McDonald was examined and found to have no defensive wounds present on his body, unlike Bates who explained away scratches on his hands as possibly from a cat or from his crossfit workouts.
A smart water meter device within Bates’ home was able to indicate how much water Bates had used between the hours of 1 AM and 3 AM, and investigators believe that it was consistent with the amount of water necessary for Bates to hose down the area of the hot tub. He was placed under arrest and charged with murder.
The trial is still underway. Among the witnesses the prosecutors hope they can call to the stand is Alexa.
Investigators have requested for Amazon to turn over any audio files, transcribed records, or other text records that may have been collected from Bates’ residence via his Echo device. Amazon agreed to hand over Bates’ account and purchase history, but have stated that they will not hand over information that can encroach upon users’ privacy. A spokesperson for Amazon told USA Today:
“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on it. Amazon objects to over broad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
While most of us realize that by inviting these various gadgets into our home we are willfully putting ourselves into a situation where our privacy can be compromised, Bates’ case is one of the first cases to rest primarily on evidence collected from his various smart devices. Some have shown great concern over the dangerous precedent this case could be setting.
Bates’ attorney Kimberly Weber told USA Today, “I have a problem that a Christmas gift that is supposed to better your life can be used against you. It’s almost like a police state.”
Engadget, a tech blog, assures Echo users that the device can be turned off at any time and only listens when the trigger word “Alexa” is spoken by the user. From there the requests of the end user is stored in Amazon’s cloud for an unknown amount of time, but can be deleted by the user if he or she does not wish for this information to be stored.
A writer for TechDirt, another tech blog and podcast, expresses far more concern over the possible use of smart devices in criminal litigation. Writer Mike Masnick says the tech industry should be discussing what people could be doing with the information stored on these devices – whether it be law enforcement or hackers – and strategies for preventing other people from accessing this information without our knowledge or consent. At the end of his biting commentary on the Bates case and the use of information collected by smart devices as evidence, Masnick states, “Amazon may have chosen not to give the info in this case (if it even had any info to give) — and that’s good. But these kinds of requests are going to keep coming. And ignoring the issue isn’t going to help anyone.”
Masnick brings up valid concerns for users of these devices. Users should be made fully aware of how this data is being utilized and what threats this data could pose if it falls into the hands of malicious individuals.
Weber also eloquently sums up the Orwellian feel of using a person’s smart devices as weapons against them. With devices all around us that are always on and always listening, like Samsung’s Smart TV voice recognition service, will cases like Bates’ set a new standard for modern police work? As the line between our right to privacy and the right for police to conduct a criminal investigation with every resource available to them continues to blur, we can only hope that the private companies responsible for producing these devices will value user privacy over policy.