Did an Amazon Echo Really Call the Police to Break Up a Domestic Dispute?

July 13, 2017

You may have heard a story on the news earlier this month about an Amazon Echo smart home device calling the police to break up a domestic dispute.  Authorities with 911 as well as Amazon have now cast doubt as to whether this is possible or not.  

According to the story, when the boyfriend of a woman in Albuquerque, New Mexico became violent when accusing the woman of cheating, the Amazon Echo in the house called the police.  When the operator heard the commotion in the background authorities were sent to the house where the boyfriend was found with a gun in his possession.  Credit was given to the Amazon Echo for potentially saving a life.

The Amazon Echo is a smart home device that responds to vocal commands to do various tasks around the house.  The Echo can be connected to any compatible devices in the house such as the thermostat, music, lighting and a variety of other devices.  The Echo can also order pizza, call an Uber or Lyft, or call contacts on your phone as well.

According to Amazon, the Echo is not programmed to call emergency services and does not have the capabilities to make phone calls on its own.  It relies on the user’s phone as well as contact list to make any sort of phone calls as asked for by the user.  If asked to “call grandma” the Echo will call the number saved under “grandma” in your contact list.  Since it is doubtful people would have “911” or “the police” saved as such in their contact list, asking the Echo (or Alexa as the voice of the device is named) to “call the police” will not work because it isn’t in your contacts.  

In the 911 recording, the woman can be heard yelling “Alexa call 911” but at that point the call had already been made so it is unclear as to what exactly triggered the phone call.  One possible explanation is that 911 was dialed on her phone but the phone was left unattended as further efforts to contact her were unsuccessful.  With “Alexa call 911” overheard by the 911 operators, credit was given to the Amazon Echo for making the call.

This could be a lesson on why you might want to put emergency services in your contacts if you have a smart home device such as the Amazon Echo but you would also run the risk of accidental 911 calls being made.  A TV news station once ran a story about Apple’s Siri virtual assistant in which they said the phrase “Hey Siri, call 911” resulting in numerous 911 calls from iPhones responding to the command overheard from the TV.