A 9-year-old boy in Gloucester, Massachusetts is facing charges for stealing several items from a neighbor’s home. The headline-grabbing element of this story is that a recording from an Amazon Echo owner’s Alexa app helped lead police to the culprit. The Gloucester Times reported:
According to officer Scott Duffany’s report, police responded to a house on Arthur Street after a woman reported that someone had entered her apartment through a rear first-floor screen three times in the last week, and made off with those items, an Alexa Echo (sic), and a package from Amazon taken off her porch after delivery.
The woman told police that she had an audio recording of a voice taken from the Alexa on her phone, proving that someone had been in her apartment and connected to her Wi-Fi. She also told police she thought she recognized the voice as that or her 9-year-old neighbor.
Finally, A Believable Alexa-as-Crime-Fighter Story
There are two high profile Alexa-as-crime-fighter stories from the past year. The first was about an Arkansas murder. It was juicy because a murder was involved and Amazon was initially refusing to hand over voice recordings on first amendment free speech grounds. In that case, no one actually knew if Alexa would have any relevant data. There was suspicion that Alexa might because an Amazon Echo was found within speaking range of the body. This seems to have turned out to be a non-event.
The second turned out to be a not-possible event. This was a mistaken attribution of a 911 call by a smart speaker that supposedly saved a woman under imminent threat from her armed boyfriend. That life-saving call was first attributed to a spontaneous intervention by Google Home and then Alexa based on a random phrase uttered by the alleged assailant. Voicebot was the first publication to call those stories out for being incorrect and not compatible with the features of Google Home and Amazon Echo devices. Amazon later confirmed that Alexa could not make 911 calls.
The story from Gloucester includes a couple of inaccurate statements that are easy to make by people not immersed in smart home or wireless technology. However, the basic facts align well with the functionality of the Alexa technology.
Voice Recordings Available in Your Alexa App
After you speak to an Alexa-enabled device, a card appears in your Alexa app related to what you just did. That card may contain contextual information such as a five-day weather forecast. Or, it might simply say you requested the song Tennessee Whiskey by Chris Stapleton and include some album cover art. In both instances, in the lower right hand corner of the card will be the word “More” with a downward facing caret. You can touch that to reveal “Voice feedback” information. It tells you what “Alexa heard” and has a small play button next to it so you can listen to the utterance. You can also provide feedback on whether Alexa heard you correctly which should help improve voice recognition over time.
Few people realize this information is available in their Alexa app. However, now that you know it is there, you can see how the victim’s story is both plausible and likely. The boy broke into the home. He likely said “Alexa,” and asked the device a question. That utterance was recorded. The woman later opened her Alexa app, saw the card and played the recorded utterance that she then recognized as the boy next door. Police confronted the child who then confessed. Case closed.
Is This a Violation of Privacy? No.
The other question will be whether people begin to think about this as a violation of privacy. The answer is no. First, the terms of using the device are clear that the voice assistant must record your voice in order to understand what you are saying and your intent. Second, a user can remove the cards at any time as per the image above. Finally, the voice recording in the app is a feature designed to help improve the system for the user’s benefit. That benefit is typically limited to better speech recognition performance. In this instance, the benefit was a clue that helped stop a minor crime wave.