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Cost of convenience: Are smart devices in your home taking away from your privacy?

INDIANAPOLIS – Lauren Radziminski’s newest family addition didn’t come wrapped in blankets.

Instead, Alexa came packaged in a box.

“I honestly cannot imagine not having one now,” Radziminski said, the wife of a CBS4 employee. “I use her that much.”

Amazon has revolutionized millions of Americans lives with the addition of the Echo, a voice-controlled device that allows users to shop, get the latest headlines, turn on our lights and serenade our homes with seemingly endless requests for music.

“I do understand she is always listening,” Radziminski said. “And I’ll say that with some air quotes.”

The Echo’s revolutionary technology, experts have said, come with new concerns about privacy.

“As people are using these devices, potentially those devices are also collecting evidence that we can use to help solve crimes,” Capt. Chuck Cohen said, with Indiana State Police.

Alexa said “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word,” when asked if the device was recording.

Once awoken using the wake word "Alexa," the audio is stored in the cloud and can be replayed on the app.

“It’s clear that in many cases the law has not kept pace with technology,” Cohen said. “But what’s important for people to understand is no information that is on those devices is any more private than things that might be in your bedroom, in your closet or somewhere else.”

While Indiana State Police investigators said they have yet to encounter a case involving the Amazon Echo, they are fully aware of the legal battle playing out in Arkansas.

“This is not a question of privacy,” Nathan Smith said, an Arkansas county prosecutor. “This is not a question of is this an invasion of privacy?”

Smith, likely for the first time, wanted to force Amazon to hand over any recordings leading up to, during and after what’s become a high-profile murder.

“That scares me,” Kimberly Weber said, the defendant’s defense attorney. “And it scares me that our criminal system is coming down to this technology.”

The defendant, James Bates, is charged in the murder.

Police said he called 911 that early morning a year-and-a-half ago when one of his friends was found floating face-up in his hot tub after a night of drinking.

“What they’re trying to do is rather novel,” Weber said. “But it is a deep invasion of privacy.”

In the case, police suspected foul play. Along with the reported blood, broken bottles and signs of a struggle, investigators also found an Amazon Echo.

“There is a balance between privacy and the interest of law enforcement in investigating and solving crimes,” Smith said.

Amazon refused to comply with the subpoena, arguing the First Amendment protects the device’s recordings. The company argued in court documents it intended to “protect the privacy rights of its customers when the government is seeking their data.”

“I think at the end of the day, most companies want to have happy customers,” Stephen Reynolds said, a partner at Ice Miller in Indianapolis. “And if consumers care about their privacy, the companies will care too.”

Reynolds works with companies across the country on data security and privacy.

“This is new for everyone,” he said. “Courts are learning. Attorneys are learning and companies are learning as well.”

The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council said no prosecutor in Indiana has encountered a case involving an Amazon Echo yet.

But experts said, as Arkansas proves, it’s likely only a matter of time.

“What’s inevitable here in Indiana is that as people have more devices or are connected to home wireless networks, and by that they are connected to the internet, those are going to prove evidentiary value to our investigations,” Cohen said.

Recently, in the Arkansas case, Bates agreed to allow Amazon to turn over the data, and the company did, leaving a clear decision from the courts still to come.

Amazon maintains its Echo isn’t recording at all times, only listening for the wake word, and only then does the device stream and store data in the cloud.

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