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Smart home device calls cops during domestic dispute

Jul 10, 20174 mins
Consumer ElectronicsInternet of ThingsSecurity

A smart device is being credited for potentially saving a life when it misheard what was said, took it as a command and called the cops

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Credit: Thinkstock

Amazon is kicking off its third annual Prime Day by slashing the cost of an Amazon Echo, cutting 50 percent off the price tag, and selling the Echo for only $89.99. Google is competing by cutting $64 from the price tag for a Google Home and Chromecast bundle, selling the two for $99.99. So, if you’ve been wanting to get a smart assistant for your home or get a jump-start on Christmas shopping, now is a good time for it.

However, owning an always-listening smart device cuts both ways; it could be used to save a life and the data from the device also could be used by police for investigations.

Smart home device calls the police

A smart device is being credited for potentially saving a life when it misheard a command and called the cops.

Eduardo Barros, his girlfriend and her daughter were house-sitting near Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 2. KRQE reported that after his girlfriend got a text message, Barros accused her of cheating on him. He allegedly hit and kicked her and then got a gun and threatened to kill her. He asked her, “Did you call the sheriffs?”

She hadn’t, but a smart home device had. The always-on microphones in the device, which was hooked up to a surround sound system, heard what Barros said and took it as the command “call the sheriffs.” It did.

Although Google Home was widely reported to be the smart device that called the cops, ABC News took out any reference to Google Home, adding, “An earlier version named a smart home device that was not the type found in the home and credited by police with calling 911.”

It’s unclear what the big secret is, what smart home device called the cops, but it led to police, a SWAT team and a crisis negotiation team showing up at the house. Police were able to take the girlfriend and the daughter out of the house. It reportedly took several hours before the cops were able to take Barros into custody.

Court records show Barros was charged with 14 counts: 12 counts of aggravated battery against a household member (deadly weapon), one count of possession of a firearm and one count of false imprisonment.

“The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life,” Bernalillo County Sheriff Department spokesperson Felicia Romero told ABC. “This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation.”

Privacy concerns with IoT devices 

This isn’t the first time police have turned to data provided by IoT devices. Police in Arkansas previously used data from an Amazon Echo for a murder investigation and data from a connected water meter in another murder investigation. Police in Ohio used data from a pacemaker to charge a man with arson and insurance fraud.

Many people already enjoy the hands-free convenience of giving voice commands to smart assistants. Amazon, for example, offers special Prime Day shopping deals exclusively for Alexa users who take advantage of voice shopping.

It’s too soon to know what will happen, but Amazon offers an opt-in “Drop In” feature for its devices. For example, Amazon’s new Echo Show, which comes with a touchscreen and camera, allows an Echo Show user to “drop in” on another. If the person receiving the “drop in” doesn’t decline the call within 10 seconds of hearing the “drop in” chime, the person making the call can see and hear into your home via your Echo Show. It’s a feature that has raised many security and privacy questions, but if it follows the line of other smart devices, police will eventually turn to that data during investigations.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.