Magazine article Information Today

Killer App

Magazine article Information Today

Killer App

Article excerpt

The 911 call at 9:30 a.m. brought police to a grim scene. A body was floating in a backyard hot tub, lifeless for what appeared to be several hours. The initial story was that friends came over for an evening of football and drinking, then a soak in the hot tub until 1:00 a.m. The owner of the residence, James Bates, told police he went to bed after offering a couch and a spare room to his two remaining friends. The next morning, Bates said he found the body of Victor Collins face down and floating in the hot tub and called 911.

Police soon began to question the story. After a search of the residence, information began to turn up that cast doubt, including signs of a struggle, such as blood spots around the tub, broken bottles, and another bottle found across the yard. Within a few days, the coroner determined that Collins' death was the result of a homicide, and a search warrant was obtained for Bates' house. The search of the house found other evidence of a struggle, including additional blood spots, and a further search of the hot tub found a broken pair of eyeglasses and a broken shot glass.

'Search and Seizure of Electronic Devices'

With Bates as the prime suspect, a second search warrant was issued for his residence, specifically, "for the search and seizure of electronic devices capable of storing and transmitting any form of data that could be related to this investigation." It turns out that Bates had extensive technology throughout his home--multiple smartphones, computers and tablets, a Nest thermometer, WEMO devices in the garage, a wireless weather monitoring system, and an Amazon Echo. The Echo and other portable devices were seized pursuant to the search warrant, and about 2 months later, investigators had enough evidence to arrest Bates for the murder of Collins.

While the police had enough evidence to constitute probable cause, they did not yet know all of the information that might be available through the Echo. They issued a search warrant to Amazon for the data from it, but as of this writing, Amazon has declined to comply with the warrant, indicating in a statement that a "valid and binding legal demand" that is not "overbroad or otherwise inappropriate" is needed before the company will release customer data.

Right to Privacy

The case has raised new and provocative questions about privacy in an era that goes beyond smartphones to offer smart cars, smart appliances, smart homes, and other objects that transmit information. Does the right to privacy, which is recognized most strongly in a person's home, continue when devices in that home are recording data and sending it to third parties?

The right to privacy is not absolute. When a government body is seeking normally private information, the Fourth Amendment becomes the most significant factor. The amendment states, "The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause...."

Expectation of Privacy

Court decisions interpreting the amendment have focused on the word "unreasonable," which creates the implication that some searches are actually "reasonable," and therefore no warrant is required. …

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