Smart speaker calls the cops on armed domestic dispute
The always listening part of the smart speaker is a cause of huge anxiety for people who read Nineteen Eighty-Four as an instruction book for future governments rather than a work of fiction. I remember at the launch event for Amazon Echo, the company made a big show of the mute button to prove that if you wanted privacy, you could easily get it. Google Home has one too – although I don’t think I’ve ever pressed either.
This constant eavesdropping has led to some strange results so far. Amazon Echo has proven to be the unlikely alibi in a murder case and has also tried to order hundreds of dolls houses on the instruction of a TV news presenter. Google Home has been targeted to be woken up by TV advertising with unfortunate results. Now an unnamed smart speaker is the hero of the hour, as it called the cops on a violent domestic dispute before things got too ugly.
ABC News reports on the case of Eduardo Barros – a man who was house-sitting with his girlfriend and her daughter in Tijeras in New Mexico. The couple got into an argument that graduated to Barros drawing a firearm and threatening to kill his girlfriend, which culminating in him saying “did you call the sheriffs?” An unnamed smart speaker system – originally misidentified as Google Home – heard the “call the sheriffs” part of the sentence, and dialled 911. Operators were able to hear the dispute as it happened and dispatched a SWAT team and negotiators to the scene. Barros was arrested on assault, battery and firearms charges.
Bernalillo county sheriff Manuel Gonzales III was full of praise for the smart home hero, saying: “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.”
Before we get too excited/worried about the potential of smart homes to break up crimes, there are a few things from the above to highlight:
1) The device actually misheard an instruction
A casual reminder that smart speakers still aren’t that smart. Nobody asked the speaker to call the police, it just happened to do so anyway. This could potentially turn into a colossal waste of police time, taking up valuable emergency service time if it weren’t for the fact that…
2) It’s not clear how this could have happened
I don’t know what system the house had in place, but this shouldn’t have been possible with a Google Home or Amazon Echo without some very odd phrasing.
To get Echo to do anything, you need to wake it up with the words “Alexa”, “Echo” or “Computer”. I know, because I tried to change mine to be woken up by the words “Jeff Bezos” so I could feel like the Amazon CEO was always waiting on me. It’s a similar story with Google Home, which is woken up with the words “OK Google.” Unless your name is Alexa (or maybe Siri when the HomeHub lands), it’s unlikely this will happen to you.
3) The specific circumstances don’t point to complete automation
But even if this were likely to happen all the time, you won’t just get a knock at your door from the police. 911 dispatchers listened in to the call – just as they would through a standard misdial – and overheard the clear sounds of distress and a disturbance. If your smart speaker called the police by mistake, and they heard nothing unusual, you wouldn’t even know it happened.
Which you may find more creepy, but there it is.
4) They may not have even known the device was listening
Barros and his girlfriend were house sitting, and may not have even know the house was fitted with smart speakers. In other words, the chances are the accused would have been a lot more careful if it was his own speaker, meaning that a standard case of domestic violence wouldn’t have been picked up.
5) Technically Barros called the police on himself
Not much to add on this particular point, but it is quite funny.
All in all, this is kind of a score-draw between those who fear smart homes fear for their privacy, and those that believe they could make us safer. There are enough points on both sides for everyone to be happy – or more likely, for nobody to be.