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Technology May Help or Hinder a Criminal Case


In the past few years, attorneys who practice family law have learned that social media can influence the outcome of a case. The upshot is that it is common for the attorneys to advise clients to be careful about what they say on those channels of communication. As we enter deeper into the age of the internet of things, everyone in Tennessee might want to consider heeding similar advice.

The internet of things, or what some call IoT for short, is that burgeoning network of web-linked devices that we use that are not our smartphones or computers. Think of computer chip-enhanced items such as refrigerators, small kitchen appliances, the smart thermostat on the wall of your home or apartment, or that voice-activated, artificial intelligence device that sits on the counter in the family room. The information these things capture and store on some distant server could have implications to you if you are ever facing criminal charges.

That last listed item might be the thing to worry about most. There aren't many such devices on the market currently. The only notable one is Amazon's Echo with its AI assistant named Alexa. It's only been around since 2014. Despite its young age, it is playing a notable role in a 2015 Arkansas murder case.

The victim is a 47-year-old man found dead in his hot tub. Police have charged a 31-year-old suspect with first-degree murder and tampering with evidence. The trial is still pending. As part of the investigation, authorities have been trying to gain access to data they think might have been collected by an Echo device owned by the defendant.

Amazon initially argued that the recordings on the voice-activated device are private under the First Amendment and should not be usable. Recently, though, the defendant consented to disclosure of the contents. Legal observers likely would agree that this move risks exposing the defendant to self-incrimination, but his counsel says the suspect agreed to access because he is innocent of all charges.

What the recordings from the Echo might reveal and how they might be used won't be known for some time. What is clear, however, is that this case represents an early skirmish in what many observers say will be a continuing battle over privacy and the use of technology-based evidence in criminal cases.