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Amazon hands over Echo data in murder case

The user involved agreed to have the data released, avoiding a potential legal battle between privacy and law enforcement concerns.

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The voice-activated Echo lets users control other smart home devices, play games and order products on Amazon's site.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Amazon's mounting First Amendment battle has reached an anticlimactic end.

The company agreed to hand over user data of an Amazon Echo speaker for a murder trial in Arkansas, after it spent months pushing back against a warrant for the information. Amazon changed its position after the user, defendant James Andrew Bates, consented to the disclosure, according to a court filing that was made public Monday.

Before Bates consented, Amazon just last month offered a strong defense against releasing the user information, with the company saying Bates' audio recordings with the Echo were protected under the First Amendment.

Amazon on March 3 handed over the data, which amounted to any audio recordings stored by the company that came from Bates' Echo from November 21 to 22, 2015. Its motion in the case will be dismissed and a hearing set for Wednesday on the Echo dispute was canceled, the filing stated.

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to offer additional comment Tuesday. In a tweet Tuesday, Kathleen Zellner, Bates' attorney, said they agreed to release the Echo data, adding: "My client James Bates is innocent."

Amazon's disclosure of the recordings by the device sidesteps a potentially significant legal battle pitting users' privacy against law enforcement's needs to investigate major crimes. The case offered an early hint at the possible legal complications posed by emerging smart home and internet of things products, which can track users' activities and movements. However, like a similar battle between Apple and the FBI over unlocking a terrorist's iPhone, this case too ended without setting any legal precedent.

Bates has been charged with first-degree murder in the 2015 death of Victor Collins, who was found dead in a hot tub at Bates' home. After finding an Amazon Echo speaker in the house, investigators sent Amazon a warrant, asking for recordings stored by the voice-activated device, which can be queried to tell a user the weather, turn on the lights and order products on Amazon.com.

Amazon only partially fulfilled the warrant's requests, saying the First Amendment protects users' queries to the Echo and Alexa, the voice assistant running the device. Additionally, Alexa's responses are also protected, the company had said.

Those protections didn't mean Amazon refused to hand over the data under all circumstances. The company previously argued that investigators needed to show they have a heightened need for the recordings and that they are relevant to the investigation. If a judge agreed with Amazon, investigators would have needed to work a little harder to get a new warrant.

Additionally, according to Monday's filing, it appears Amazon will also share that data, so long as a user consents.

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