Police Want Your Smart Speaker—Here’s Why

In July 2019, police rushed to the home of 32-year-old Silvia Galva. Galva’s friend, also in the home, called 911, claiming she overheard a violent argument between Galva and her boyfriend, 43-year-old Adam Crespo. The two lived together in Hallandale Beach, Florida, about 20 miles from Miami.

When officers arrived, Galva was dead, impaled through her chest by the 12-inch blade at the sharp end of a bedpost. Police believe Crespo tried to drag Galva from their bed. She held onto the bedpost to resist, but the sharp end snapped, somehow killing her. Police charged Crespo with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $65,000 bail, awaiting trial. In the months since the arrest, Crespo’s lawyer has presented a surprising piece of evidence in his defense: recordings from a pair of Amazon Echo speakers.

“I had a lot of interviews where people said, ‘Oh, are you aware that this could be the first time Alexa recordings are going to be used to convict somebody of murder?’” says Christopher O’Toole, Crespo’s lawyer. “And I actually thought of it the opposite way, that this could be the first time an Amazon Alexa recording is used to exonerate somebody and show that they’re innocent.”

When police and prosecutors collect smart home or speaker data, it’s typically used as evidence against suspects. The Hallandale Beach Police Department filed a subpoena for Crespo’s speakers, as they may have picked up audio of the argument Galva’s friend overheard.

The incident shows the growing role of smart home devices and wearables in police investigations.

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In 2016, police in Bentonville, Arkansas, requested Amazon Echo data in connection with a man’s death, believed to be the first such request. Amazon initially tried to block the request, but later handed over the data. A murder charge against the defendant was later dropped, but speaker, smart home, and wearable data has figured into multiple cases since then.

Earlier this month, Amazon said it had received more than 3,000 requests from police for user data in the first half of this year, and complied almost 2,000 times. That was a 72 percent increase in requests from the same period in 2016, when Amazon first disclosed the data, and a 24 percent jump in the past year alone.

Amazon doesn’t provide granular data on what police are seeking, but Douglas Orr, head of the criminal justice department at the University of North Georgia, says police now look for smart home data as routinely as data from smartphones. Data on a smartphone often points officers towards other devices, which they then probe as the investigation continues.

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