The dawn of the virtual assistants aims to bring personalized conveniences and persistent data connections weaved in through our daily lives.
We have seen how the police sought an Amazon Echo’s audio recordings in hopes of solving a murder earlier this year.
While Amazon ultimately handed the smart device’s audio data to help solve the crime, another smart appliance has been reported to have been willingly entangled in another incident. However, in this case, the device actually helped spot a crime and stopped it from escalating even further.
A woman in New Mexico was reportedly saved by a smart speaker after the device called 911 during a domestic dispute.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff Department said that Eduardo Barros was house sitting in Tijeras, New Mexico with his girlfriend and daughter. The couple began to argue and it escalated into a physical tussle. During the altercation, Barros allegedly pulled out a gun and asked his girlfriend “Did you call the sheriffs?”
This phrase apparently triggered the smart speaker to interpret it as an emergency request and proceeded to dial 911. The 911 operator then overheard the argument in the background, which prompted the sheriff’s office deputies to investigate.
The deputies were able to intervene and remove Barros’ girlfriend and her daughter from the home. The woman sustained injuries during the altercation but did not require hospitalization while her daughter was unharmed. The local police chose not to reveal the names of the woman and the daughter.
However, Barros refused to surrender peacefully, which led to an hours-long standoff. A negotiation team and a SWAT team were eventually deployed and were able to take Barros into custody.
According to court documents, he is facing multiple charges – possession of a firearm or destructive device by a felon, aggravated battery against a household member, aggravated assault against a household member and false imprisonment. He is now being held without bond until a hearing date is set.
The local police said that the smart appliance may have played a crucial role in saving the woman’s life.
“The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life,” Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III said in an official statement.
Although it wasn’t disclosed what type of smart speaker was involved (it was earlier reported incorrectly as a Google Home) nor how it was triggered, this highlights how these devices, for better or for worse, are always listening.
For example, when a smart speaker such as the Amazon Echo Alexa detects its wake word (and glows blue), it streams “a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word” to the “Cloud” (Amazon’s servers) and closes once your command has been processed. That fraction of a second, of course, gets saved along with your main command.
The Google Home operates in a similar way. It listens constantly (and records) in “short snippets” for the wake word “OK Google” and if it detects it, its LED lights activate and the recording (which includes the wake word) is then sent to Google’s servers.
Judging by how both virtual assistants work, it’s safe to assume that they record all the time and they store the recordings locally, albeit temporarily, for parsing before they get streamed and sent to the Cloud servers for processing. If the keyword or wake word is not detected, the audio snippet is deleted.
With the growing popularity of these always-on, always-listening smart appliances, law enforcement will likely see more and more of these types of virtual assistant emergency calls, with either false alarms or, as demonstrated in this case, real alerts that can save lives.