Despite what you may have heard, an Amazon Echo did not call the police earlier this week, when it heard a husband threatening his wife with a gun in New Mexico. On Monday, news reports took Bernalillo County authorities’ version of those events credulously, heralding the home assistant as a hero. The alleged act also raised an important question: Do you really want to live in a world where Alexa listens to your conversations, and calls the cops if she thinks things are getting out of hand?
The good news is that you don’t live in that world. Amazon’s Alexa can’t, and did not, call 911. Google Home can’t do it either. No voice-assistant device on the market can. That doesn’t invalidate the core question though, especially as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and their offshoots increasingly gain abilities and become more integral to everyday life. How intrusive do you want to let these devices be? Should they be able to call the police? Maybe not even just when specifically prompted, but because they may have heard, for instance, a gun shot?
The Bernalillo County incident almost certainly had nothing to do with Alexa. But it presents an opportunity to think about issues and abilities that will become real sooner than you might think.
A Quick Debunk
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department reported, specifically, that when a man drew a gun on his wife in a home where an Amazon Echo was placed, he said to her, “Did you call the sheriffs?” and the Echo misinterpreted that as a command to call the sheriffs, who then showed up at the front door. The authorities later clarified that someone in the house could be heard in the 911 recording yelling, “Alexa, call 911.”
This could not have happened as described. Amazon’s Echo requires a “wake word” to activate; the default is “Alexa,” but you can also customize it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “Computer.” And while they can make calls, an Alexa-powered device can only call another Alexa-powered device. Not only that, but it can only call other Alexa devices that have enabled calling, and have been added to your contact list. Most importantly, these exchanges don’t take place over the public switched telephone network, the worldwide network that allows wireless or land phones to actually make calls.
In other words, the sheriffs would have needed an Alexa device of their own for that to ever work, one that the couple in the domestic dispute had in their contact list. Later, the police said that the Alexa was used in combination with some kind of home phone or cellular phone system. That at first sounds more plausible, but is actually also technologically impossible, as the Echo does not support calls over Bluetooth.
Someone called the police that day. It just wasn’t Alexa.