In March, Arkansas police ordered Amazon to hand over data from one of its smart home devices as part of a murder investigation. In a separate incident, it looks as though Alexa acted ahead of time by calling 911 and alerting officers to a case of domestic abuse.
Amazon’s Echo, a smart home device featuring the Alexa personal assistant, is always listening. Whether that’s a good thing or not might depend on which side of the witness box you are sitting. The device has been on the right side of the law after being responsible for calling the authorities in a recent domestic violence case near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Alexa calls 911
The Bernalillo County Sheriff Department received a call from the Amazon device after suspect Eduardo Barros allegedly threatened to kill his girlfriend while house-sitting with her daughter.
A spokesman for the local police said the speaker called 911 after hearing the man asking, “Did you call the sheriffs?”
The device apparently took the statement as a command and did exactly that. The police department was then able to listen in on an escalating situation and send a SWAT team to intervene.
The local police saw the Echo’s contribution as surprising but welcome. “The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life. This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation,” Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said in a statement to ABC News.
The man in question is now facing charges of possession of a firearm or destructive device by a felon, aggravated battery against a household member, false imprisonment and aggravated assault against a household member.
Smart devices and law enforcement come together again
Earlier this year Amazon was subpoenaed to hand over data collected by one of the company’s devices as part of a murder case. After initially refusing to share the information citing the 1st amendment, the defendant intervened and allowed the Echo device to be examined by police.
This latest story will again raise questions about exactly how much information Amazon’s smart home devices are storing about everyday conversations. Depending on your viewpoint, the ‘always listening’ capability of the Echo is either innovative, sinister or a combination of the two.
For consumers, the ability to talk out loud and garner a response is the whole point of the product. However, the rise of security breaches in IoT devices and the apparent ease with which they can be accessed by hackers is a cause for concern.
Late last year Gizmodo editor Matt Novak filed a freedom of information request with the FBI to ask if the organization had ever wiretapped an Amazon Echo. Disconcertingly, the response was typically clandestine: “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records…”
Read more: NXP & Amazon talk up voice-enabled devices