Did Alexa Really Call 911?

Technology’s grip on our daily lives is both exhilarating and concerning. Voice-activated smart tech is becoming more and more prevalent in American homes, and they’ve come with some amazing uses. Many also worry about possible invasions of privacy. After all, many of these devices are always listening – and who knows where the data it picks up, auditory or not, is really being sent?

One of the most popular examples of such tech is the Amazon Echo. Users prompt the device into action by using the name “Alexa”, much like iPhone users prompt their device into particular actions by using the name “Siri”. Want to know who that Harry Styles guy your daughter keeps talking about it? “Alexa, who is Harry Styles?” will return information from an Internet biography. “Alexa, order a pizza!” will prompt the device to make an online order of a pre-determined pizza delivery.

So far, so innocuous, right? Well, authorities, Amazon, journalists, and consumers all seem to be a little confused about something particularly interesting that occurred last week in New Mexico.

police dispatch
Source: Flickr

A violent assault took place in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. Eduardo Barros, arrested on July 2, currently stands accused of having beaten his girlfriend in her parents’ home, striking her at least ten times. The police were able to intervene, apparently after the victim, yelled “Alexa, call 911”, prompting an emergency call. For a time, the police were convinced that Alexa had made the call. It seems unlikely that the defense attorney who will work on the case will have had to have worked on a case in which the 911 caller was a robot before!

This story spread like wildfire for a little while, which is hardly surprising. But Amazon – as well as a national 911 association – are a little confused. This is because the Amazon Echo doesn’t actually have the ability to call 911. Order pizza? Sure. Give you info on Harry Styles? Certainly. Call 911? No.

crime scene tape
Source: Flickr

The evidence for the victim having yelled out “Alexa, call 911” is, according to police, found in a recorded call to 911. This means that the victim was already on the phone to 911 when she attempted to prompt Alexa into action. This seems like strange evidence to use to prove that Alexa did call 911 – if anything, it’s proof that something else called 911. It is maintained that the call wasn’t manually made. In which case, it seems likely that the victim’s cell phone may have made the call, suggesting that the victim had yelled “call 911” already. If her phone is an iPhone, then this is certainly possible – Siri can call 911, as authorities found to their dismay when the feature was released.

The details are all unclear, and everyone seems a little confused. For now, it’s best not to spread around the story that Alexa prevented an episode of domestic violence from turning into something worse. This may, in fact, be fake news!

We’ve gotten to the point where someone can yell “Call 911” in their home and actually get the emergency service they need, but without the certain knowledge of what device actually called 911. No wonder people are finding technology both exhilarating and concerning.

Did Alexa Really Call 911? 3
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