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Solving a Murder Case with IoT Devices

Solving a Murder Case with IoT Devices
by Daniel Payne on 12-28-2016 at 12:00 pm

I watch a lot of Netflix and there are so many detective movies and series for me to enjoy where I try and match wits with the bad guys and figure out who is guilty a few seconds before the law enforcement characters do. On TV and with our movies there is often critical evidence extracted from desktop computers, laptops, hard drives, smart phones and even automobile GPS devices. With an increase in connected devices used each day we are seeing more technology applied to help solve crimes, so it was no surprise to read the recent headline story about an Amazon Echo device confiscated by the police to possible help them solve a murder case in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Amazon Echo device has the following characteristics:

  • WiFi connected
  • Tower speaker
  • 7 Microphone array
  • Voice activated by saying “Alexa, Amazon or Echo”
  • Remote control
  • Answers your questions
  • Music playback
  • Can create to-do lists
  • Set an alarm
  • Stream a podcast
  • Play an audio book
  • Provide weather reports, traffic and other real time info
  • Act as a home automation hub

Early adopters of the Echo were Amazon Prime members who could buy the device in early 2015, while the masses had to wait until June 2015 to buy one and start using it.

Semiconductor content inside of the Amazon Echo was provided by iFixIt in a teardown report:

  • Step-down regulator IC from TI
  • Ultra low-power stereo audio codec from TI
  • 15W filter-free Class D stereo amplifier from TI
  • Digital Media Processor, TI
  • LPDDR1 RAM, Samsung
  • 4GB iNAND Ultra Flash Memory, SanDisk
  • WiFi and Bluetooth module, Qualcomm
  • Power management IC, TI
  • Programmable 9-output LED Driver, TI
  • Low-power stereo ADC, TI
  • TTL Logic, TI

Our suspect in this particular murder case is named James and the victim was Victor who was strangled and drowned in James hot tub back in November 2015. The police have looked at the phone and text message records of suspect James. Some of the other IoT devices in the home include:

  • Nest thermostat
  • Honeywell alarm system

Because the Echo device is constantly listening to what’s going on inside your home, the police were naturally curious to find out if this particular Echo had overheard the conversations, fighting or actual murder. Since the Echo device listens with its 7 microphones and sends the info into the cloud, controlled by Amazon, the police have asked Amazon to hand over the audio from the time of the murder. Amazon officials have denied the initial request based on court records, and won’t release customer data from Echo, “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to over broad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

This stand off sounds like deja vu from the Apple case where they wouldn’t unlock a drug dealer’s iPhone back in March 2016. At least in the case of the iPhone there appears to be an industry out there that knows how to unlock without Apple’s permission. Not so for the Echo devices.

Even though the local police have confiscated the Amazon Echo from the suspect, none of the audio is actually stored on the device, rather it would only be processed and stored on the cloud that Amazon controls. Nobody really knows how much data Amazon is gathering from their Echo devices, so perhaps this particular case will reveal what Amazon really does with always on, IoT devices like Echo that hear and decipher our speech. I really hope that justice is served in this murder case, with or without help from Amazon. We can only expect that law enforcement will continue to request IoT and consumer electronics companies to help them solve crimes using the amazing, new abilities of always-on devices that can hear and view what we are doing throughout our daily lives.

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