Yesterday we told you about the epic, real-life Robocop story of Amazon’s Alexa calling the local sheriffs on a man in New Mexico who was physically beating his girlfriend. He was taken into custody after a SWAT standoff, and she and her young daughter were removed from the house safely, but now there are doubts about the entire story. Amazon is claiming that Alexa isn’t capable of calling 911. So who the hell did?
While the girlfriend and her child were being held hostage by Eduardo Barros, the sheriff’s department said the victims were able to contact law enforcement through Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant that works through speakers like the Echo and on Amazon tablets, as well as devices with the Alexa app.
“In the recording, you can hear her screaming, ‘Alexa, call 911,’ ” said the department’s public information officer, Felicia Romero.
The county sheriff, Manuel Gonzales III, gave tons of credit to the smart assistant for being able to contact police in a dire situation, which ended in a six-hour standoff between the alleged suspect and the local authorities.
“This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation,” Gonzales said in a statement.
But while Alexa is useful for a handful of tricks like setting timers, playing music and turning on your lights, it can’t call the police. Amazon rolled out a new calling feature in May, but it only works between Echo devices or the Alexa app, which means that Alexa wouldn’t be able to call real phone numbers like 911.
There are a handful of IFTTT commands for your Alexa to make calls, but it’s only for your own phone, not an outside landline. It’s not the same as asking Siri or Google Assistant on your phones to call 911, because they actually have a mobile network attached to them.
“The receiving end would also need to have an Echo device or the Alexa app connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data, and they would need to have Alexa calling/messaging set up,” an Amazon spokeswoman told CNET.com.
The sheriff’s department in New Mexico did not have an Echo device or app set up for this particular call.
Deputies originally said that the smart home device was voice-activated after Barros threatened the victim, and asked, “Did you call the sheriffs?” The police report stated that the Echo heard “call the sheriffs” as a command and dialed 911.
The Echo and Echo Dot are only voice-activated through wake words including “Alexa” or “Echo,” and do not process requests unless activated, Amazon said. “Did you” is not listed as a wake word for Amazon’s smart speakers.
Also on the police report, the victim is said to have been heard yelling “Alexa, call 911” on the call recording. Why would someone ask their smart speaker to call 911 if they are already on the phone with police?
“All we can confirm is that 911 was called, we have the recording, the victim stated that’s what happened,” Romero said. “We don’t know what device it came from. I don’t know how it did it.”
He also added that the smart speaker was connected to the victim’s home phone system. But Amazon said that’s impossible.
“The Alexa calling and messaging service is not able to connect to third-party calling services or landlines to make a 911 call,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.
Of course, the important thing is that the mother and daughter are safe now. But still… hmmmmm.