back to article Voice assistants are always listening. So why won't they call police if they hear a crime?

If you saw someone being assaulted, you'd probably whip out your phone and dial for help. But when one of our newly ubiquitous devices hears a crime, it does nothing. If Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri hears an assault, or a rape, they sit there waiting for their cues to act. But that's a load of malarkey. Listening for a …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What do you suggest they do?

    The only thing I can think of is that when they hear the cues that someone needs the emergency services is that they activate but then who is going to be on the other end? You would need it to first send a location then connect and share audio with a person who could determine if help was needed or if it's a mistake. That's a lot of people and you couldn't just use the 999 people because there aren't enough as it is and they need to be dealing with confirmed emergencies. There's also the privacy aspect, where do you draw the line, do you really think the government won't see this as an opportunity to spy on people? Mention drugs, anything terrorist related, something against the government and it gets grabbed.

    It's shouldn't happen in my opinion regardless of the perceived benefits.

    1. AMBxx Silver badge

      There have already been stories of these things placing orders for stuff when adverts are shown on TV.

      I don't think I dare watch another episode of CSI! Heaven forbid I watch a film about terrorism or wife beating.

      1. David Gosnell

        Somehow this conjures reverse images of Kevin in Home Alone, scaring the burglars with the video film

      2. boltar Silver badge

        "I don't think I dare watch another episode of CSI! Heaven forbid I watch a film about terrorism or wife beating."

        Quite. This whole article is a load of touchy feely guff by someone who clearly didn't even spend 2 minutes considering the dangers of false positives. But then this sort of quality of "journalism" is where El Reg appears to be heading these days.

    2. sorry, what?
      FAIL

      "There's no easy way through this"...

      Really?!

      I take the easy way: I reject voice assistants. Not a single one is enabled on any device in my household.

      Very easy.

      1. Archtech Silver badge

        Re: "There's no easy way through this"...

        "I reject voice assistants. Not a single one is enabled on any device in my household".

        As far as you know.

        1. sorry, what?
          Meh

          Re: "There's no easy way through this"...

          @Archtech, You have heard of outgoing firewall rules, right?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            @Boltar

            100% agree, there is something fishy in the cupboard and isn't an old tin of cat food.

            I've just been listening to the news and how all the trains in the East of England are being shut down or limited, with no bus replacements, because there is snow *on the way*!!

            The lunatics have taken over the asylum and sanity no longer means what we used to think it did. Being sane in this country now feels dangerous. I think it's time to bug out.

            PS It's now a moot point, but the benefits of these types of systems are not for the *consumer*, so why is anyone surprised when they are not geared up to provide things people actually need?* Plus, where is the, very obvious, solution of NOT HAVING THE DAMNED THINGS!!? It isn't like they are providing an essential service, like electricity or water, is it?

            *Although as has been mentioned, I'm not entirely sure how a monitoring system would cope with TV shows, or the actors guild rehearsals of Macbeth, for example.

            1. ma1010 Silver badge
              Happy

              Re: @Boltar

              Being sane in this country now feels dangerous. I think it's time to bug out.

              Ditto here. For $DEITY'S sake, don't look for sanity in the U.S. (where I live - not that you're likely to look here, but just making sure), Where do you suggest we go to find this sanity you speak of?

              1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

                Re: @Boltar

                I'm not aware there is much left to head towards unfortunately.

                Even the once great and practical land of Oz seems to have been infected with it.

                20'years ago: house on fire = stick another shrimp on the bbq. Now? They're more likely to ban house ownership.

                1. The Central Scrutinizer

                  Re: @Boltar

                  Don't bother coming to Australia looking for sanity. It fell down the back of the couch years ago and hasn't been seen since. The drive to back door crypto is on, house prices are mental, business is actively trying to worsen working conditions for wage slaves and the politicians are too busy infighting to even pretend that they're running the place. You'll have to look elsewhere.

                2. onefang Silver badge

                  Re: @Boltar

                  "Even the once great and practical land of Oz seems to have been infected with it."

                  Yeah, I've been thinking that leaving Oz would be a good idea, if only there was a decent place to go to that isn't below freezing a lot of the time. I hate the cold.

              2. JohnFen Silver badge

                Re: @Boltar

                "Where do you suggest we go to find this sanity you speak of?"

                Even if there were such a place, remember that almost no nation will take you unless you're wealthy or have a special skill that they are badly in need of.

            2. peterjames

              Re: @Boltar

              Well (on Macbeth) - it would detect the guilt - and if any sane/unburdened by the said self-inflicted emotion - it would probably decide to do what you just described - check out.

              Do correct me if wrong - but once the asylum decides its collective guilt must be suffered out - there is not much one can do but wait for it to take place - any help only makes the ones who know (or consider) they have done wrong - just accumulate the need for self-punishment (and they know how they want it too - not too soft, not too hard either - no permanent damage, just cleansing of the soul - I dare say (as a complete non-Briton and so to be booed off the stage for exposing the mechanism - greetings from a place I won't name)).

        2. Muscleguy Silver badge

          Re: "There's no easy way through this"...

          I have denied the Google App permission to access the microphone on my phone. Saying 'Okay Google' does nothing. I NEVER tap the Google search bar either, I use the Startpage shortcut instead. On my previous phone I managed to disable the Google App completely. It required a hard reset when I tried it on this iteration.

          I run Oversight on this laptop, our TV is decidedly non smart and the digibox is not a voice activated one. I'm not interested in that. As a scientist I am adept at forming specific search queries and finding stuff myself.

      2. Mark 85 Silver badge

        @sorry, what? -- Re: "There's no easy way through this"...

        Yes, it's easy for us techies who have a bit of deserved paranoia. But what about the average "Joe User" who hasn't clue or isn't one of us? They have no idea what's being slurped and most don't care. If they did, FB wouldn't have ever been a "thing". And let's not even get into "smart" devices that send everything back to the mothership.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Gimp

      The mfg don't mind spying on you. They do mind being responsible for a response

      But make no mistake, they are spying on you. 24/7/365

      But with a non requested response people might start to realize it a bit more.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's not *your* security they are listening-in on to protect

    It's *Their's*, you seditious bastard.

    If you've got nothing to Hide, then you've got nothing to Fear, Winston.

    1. AMBxx Silver badge

      Re: It's not *your* security they are listening-in on to protect

      We need Anonymous Cowards to have the option to be 'Sarcastic Anonymouse Cowards'. I think the spirit of this post was lost on a few people.

  3. ratfox Silver badge
    Stop

    First, we need the assistants to be able to distinguish what's real and what's TV. I bet the plods won't be too happy to be called from 100'000 different homes at the same time during Dexter reruns.

    1. Symon Silver badge
      Coat

      I always found Dexter very sinister. ---->

      1. Archtech Silver badge

        You are definitely

        Right!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: You are definitely

          don't you mean "Left"?

    2. peterjames

      If only real humans could do that...

  4. smudge Silver badge

    Is it live, or is it Memorex?

    These devices, or the cloud services that power them, can easily understand when someone is angry, or terrified or in pain.

    And can they tell when that someone is physically present in the room, and when they are being relayed through the loud, high-quality home cinema setup in the room?

  5. Halcin

    What about a spoilt child expressing genuine distress over not being allowed to stay up late?

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Indeed

      How is Siri going to make the difference between a child being assaulted by a pedophile and one who stubbed his/her toe and is expressing justifiable but innocent pain ?

      Siri won't.

      So then the argument will become "put a 911 operator on the line to listen and decide", and then we have two issues : violation of a person's property by forcing it to dial 911 without consent (plus all the people in the vicinity - great use of resources there, no possibility of confusion at all) and shoving the responsibility to a harassed phone operator. Sounds like kicking into the sidelines to me.

      This whole article is a brilliant demonstration of the stupidity of the "think of the children" mentality. Oh, so phones can do this now ? Well enroll them into the police force and have them tell on everything all the time, because that is the only thing that can protect the children.

      No thought of any consequences, or even of the practical issues that can be encountered.

      In short, useless and dangerous.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What about a spoilt child

      simples, you come up to them real quick, whack them on the head and muffle the cries, silly!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What about a spoilt child

        They'd first have a lot of explaining to do about how they got out of the cupboard!

  6. gnasher729 Silver badge

    I don’t know what Alexa does, but Siri waits for the words “hey Siri”, hard coded in a very low power chip, and doesn’t listen to anything until it gets that signal.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Quite. The article is based on a misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise, of how the technology works.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        It isn't the matter of understanding the technology

        and how it works. These things have the potential to be used buy anyone who can hack the system or gain access via legal means to snoop on you and what you are doing 24/7.

        I disable the assistant in my phone and check that it remains disabled after every update (rare these days)

        Having been around tech and working on it for more than 40 years NONE of the bits of kit that runs Alexa/Siri/Bixby/or whatever will ever come into my home let alone be plugged in and switched on.

        I've done without them for 60 years and can carry on doing without them for a few more decades thank you very much.

        IMHO, the sooner these die a slow lingering death the better but people love to show off their blingy toys. 'Alexa, tell Bezos to get F*****d'.

      2. AMBxx Silver badge
        Big Brother

        >> doesn’t listen to anything until it gets that signal.

        Didn't you read the small print on page 44 of the latest update?

        Joking aside, I wouldn't trust them not to change it in the future.

        1. Warm Braw Silver badge

          The trend is definitely to move more of the voice recognition into the device itself - at the moment there is a lot of cost tied up in cloud-side systems that isn't covered by the low-margin bug speaker. That could be used to send less data to the cloud or to process and retain more data locally and send it to the cloud on demand. It will all depends on which is more profitable...

      3. David Nash Silver badge

        Misunderstanding of how the tech works

        "...can easily understand when someone is angry, or terrified or in pain"

        I would doubt this very much. They are only machines. They don't actually "understand" anything.

    2. Joe Harrison Silver badge

      That's what they want you to think

      Have you ever actually seen this very low power chip mmmhey?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Alexa does the same. I thought the linked article might explain that they have secretly been 'listening to everything', but alas not.

      The device doesn't send conversations back until it hears it's trigger word. The linked article was just explaining that the developers could get the exact words used to trigger their skill (rather than them having to set the trigger words and just get told that theat pattern had been activated).

      So regardless for the fact that there doesn't appear to be any evidence for the fact that it is forever sending every conversation back to the mothership (sure, they could, sure they or the government might want it) the amount of false alarms to a busy service would be ridiculous.

      A far better solution would be to be able to record a hardcoded 'code word' into the device that would trigger the emergency service call and tell the operator to listen in with the current location. Just make sure the code word is not something that might be said during 'normal times'?

      1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

        Just

        make sure you don't use your 'usual' safeword.

      2. chrisf1

        or indeed a simple 'alexa call the police' for most purposes. Given drop in functionality etc that seems pretty rational.

    4. onefang Silver badge
      Alert

      'I don’t know what Alexa does, but Siri waits for the words “hey Siri”, hard coded in a very low power chip, and doesn’t listen to anything until it gets that signal.'

      Which would fail the other way, "HEY SIRI, HELP! I'M BEING MURD...'' gurgle, thump. Hmm, thinks Siri, they are mixing their English and French?

  7. Lysenko

    SWATted by Siri?

    No thanks. It is a dumb an idea as a car that does an emergency stop every time it hears the word "brake" (or was it "break"?). If they have to do something like this (and Alexa at least could do it now), it should be based on a safeword (or phrase), not AI trying to disentangle someone doing DIY while watching a horror movie.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: SWATted by Siri?

      But verbal cues will immediately be noted as less than useless if someone is being STRANGLED.

      Though I completely agree about the playback issue. Alexas ALREADY respond to the TV.

  8. Scott Broukell
    Meh

    I threw my latest voice assistant in the bin after it blatantly took no emergency action whatsoever upon my extremely audible reaction to the news that the local Krappy Fried Chicken shop was going to be closed for a whole week!, yes, seven whole days! It just bloomin sat there and did absolutely nothing, I was anticipating maybe an automated emergency call for a supply of spicy fried wings to be air-lifted to my address, but no, nothing. I had to put the call in myself, what's the point of these devices. Waste of money!

    1. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

      There is a Just Eat integration that could have saved you.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "There is a Just Eat integration that could have saved you."

        ..or potentially make you ill.

  9. Korev Silver badge

    Liability?

    You could also imagine a scenario where $VENDOR implements this and something bad happens and no Police are called. The victim's family could then sue Amazon, Google etc.

    1. Brian 18

      Re: Liability?

      Or as others have mentioned, $VENDOR implements this and people have SWAT show up for watching a horror movie or crime drama.

  10. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Given the current track record of voice recognition...

    ... you'd surely not want them to call the emergency services. After all the vast majority of calls would be "butt-calls".

    Besides the majority of people still believe that they don't send everything to be processed to some manufacturers cloud.

  11. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Hey Siri! Argh! Help!

    They do wait for keywords before slurping, or at least that's what we're told

    1. Christian Berger Silver badge

      Re: Hey Siri! Argh! Help!

      Yes, but voice recognition is a fuzzy thing, and typically more users will complain when it didn't recognice the keyword as to when it did, and silently sent a recording to the server to double check.

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