Smart Home Device Called 911 To Break Up Domestic Assault. Or Did it?

Editors Note July 10, 7:37 pm: There are many news stories now suggesting this was an Amazon Echo using Alexa that made the call. It was easy to debunk the original Google Home as you will see from the analysis below. The new story that it was an Amazon Echo is possible but very unlikely. July 12 update: Amazon tells Fox News it does not support 911 calls. A description of the sequence of events by the New York Post confirms my suspicion that a smartphone was used to connect with 911 and not a smart speaker. How else would 911 call the victim’s phone? How that call was originally placed is another question as you will see in the initial analysis below. 

ABC News reported that a Google Home Called 911 during a domestic assault and has subsequently suggested it was a “smart home” device but declined to name the product. The article summarized the encounter this way:

Eduardo Barros was house-sitting with his girlfriend and her daughter Sunday night at a residence in Tijeras, some 15 miles east of Albuquerque. The couple got into an argument and the altercation became physical, according to the Bernalillo County Sheriff Department’s spokesperson, Deputy Felicia Romero.

Barros allegedly wielded a firearm and threatened to kill his girlfriend, asking her: “Did you call the sheriffs?” A smart speaker, which was hooked up to a surround sound system inside the home, recognized that as a voice command and called 911, Romero said.

A SWAT team responded, surrounded the house and took Mr. Barros into custody. His girlfriend was injured but didn’t require hospitalization. Her daughter was unharmed. A spokesman for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office commented to ABC News, “This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation.” But, did it really?

How Did This Happen?

This is undoubtably a good outcome, but it may leave frequent Voicebot readers wondering how this happened. There are two reasons why this is hard to believe if you are following the industry closely:

  1. The “wake-up phrase” was not uttered.
  2. Google Home can’t make calls.

No Wake-Up Phrase Uttered

First, a comment like “Did you call the sheriffs,” doesn’t include the wake-up phrase, “OK Google.” Google Home devices are supposedly only listening for “OK Google” and then after that wake-up phrase will listen to requests and execute tasks in the cloud. The devices are designed to only activate after the “wake-up” for both privacy and technology performance reasons.

It is unlikely that the assailant uttered the wake-up phrase on purpose, so it may have been a sound-alike phrase activated the device or some statement in the preceding sentence. This is a plausible scenario, but falls into the rare category because “OK Google,” doesn’t have a lot of frequently spoken sound-alike phrases unlike Alexa. Google has this data and could tell us the exact invocation and utterance.

Google Home Can’t Make Calls

However, even if Google Home was activated, the device doesn’t have calling features unless Google has rolled these out in New Mexico without telling anyone. I tested my Google Home today with three questions.

  • My 1st Question: “Did you call the Sheriffs?”
  • Google Home Response: Nothing. Without the wake-up phrase the device didn’t respond.
  • My 2nd Question: “OK Google, did you call the Sheriffs?”
  • Google Home Response: “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do that yet.”
  • My 3rd Question: “OK Google, can you call 911?”
  • Google Home Response: “Sorry, I can’t make calls yet.”

These are the responses I expected. Let’s set aside the wake-up phrase consideration. Google Home cannot make calls. The company announced that the devices would be able to make calls later this year during the Google I/O developer conference in April, but the feature has not launched yet. It is hard to believe that Google Home had anything to do with this.

Was This Really a Smartphone Call by Google Assistant?

The more likely scenario is that a smartphone made the call. This could have happened in two ways. First, if the smartphone had Google Assistant installed, it could have made the call. Voicebot readers know that Google Assistant on the smartphone is the same brains behind Google Home’s personal assistant. If a wake up phrase and similar sounding utterance such as “OK Google,” was said, Google Assistant would be listening.

I tested this today on my own Google Assistant app for iPhone. I asked, “OK Google, did you call the Sheriffs?” It brought back a text bubble suggesting what I had said was, “can you call the Sheriff’s Office,” and then showed a Google Assistant bubble with “Calling…” It offered to make a call, but a dialog box asked me to confirm with a click to “cancel,” or “call.” It required a touch to complete the action. I tested this from an iPhone so it may be different on an Android. That would make sense. Siri is the default voice assistant on iPhone and doesn’t require a confirmation step to place a call. I assume the same is true for Google Assistant which is the default voice assistant for Android phones. The fact is that smartphones can make calls using Google Assistant or other voice assistants that by default are always listening.

A second potential scenario is that the woman or the daughter activated a call knowingly during the altercation as it escalated. It may be convenient to say this was a Google Home call, but I suspect a subsequent investigation would conclude that the origin was a smartphone either as a direct call or aided by Google Assistant.

Could This Have Been an Amazon Echo?

Editors Note and Update: After ABC News updated its story to say “smart device” we tested the same scenario on Amazon Alexa. The Alexa wake-up word is known for being activated more easily because of many soundalike words. It also has a calling feature.

Both of these factors make this more likely. However, for it to be an Alexa-powered device, the Sheriff’s department would have had to be in the saved contacts of the device owner. This is certainly possible, but again we have another hurdle to cross to make this story believable. And, after the call is initiated, the Echo tells you it is making the call and to whom. This audible confirmation that a call is being placed to the Sheriff would likely have been noticed by the inhabitants in the house.

Google Should Share the Circumstances of the Call

This is the type of urban legend that can generate its own momentum if it is never challenged. It is also the type of story that will raise new concerns about privacy. Granted, the outcome here was good, but it will make people wonder about times when the outcome might not be. The technology limitations suggest Google Home didn’t make the call despite what was reported.

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