Police in Lancashire, a county in northwest England, have rolled out a program to broadcast crime updates, photos of wanted and missing people, and safety notifications to Amazon Echo owners. Since February, the free app has been available to those using Alexa, a cloud-based voice assistant hooked up to the Echo smart speaker. The first of its kind in the U.K., the program was developed by the police force’s innovations manager in a partnership with Amazon developers.
The program marks the latest example of third parties aiding, automating, and in some cases, replacing, the functions of law enforcement agencies — and raises privacy questions about Amazon’s role as an intermediary. Lancashire County will store citizens’ crime reports on Amazon’s servers, rather than those operated by the police. “If we can reduce demand into our call centers via the use of voice recognition or voice-enabled technology, and actually give the community the information they need without them needing to ring into police, then that’s massive,” Rob Flanagan, Lancashire Constabulary innovations manager, told the College of Policing conference, according to TechSpot.
But broadcasting is just the beginning of the county’s plans. The next iteration of the pilot program, expected to launch by year’s end, will allow users to report crimes directly to their smart speakers. After that, Flanagan imagines that Alexa might be used not just by civilians, but internally by officers for briefings and important information. “The cop [would] be able to say ‘Give me the warrant details for Joe Blocks,’ and then it would read back that person’s warrant and details and send the information to the offices mobile device that they have on their person,” Flanagan told Gizmodo. (Flanagan and the Lancashire Constabulary did not respond to repeated requests for comment).
To David Murakami Wood, a scholar of surveillance, the program serves as a startling reminder of the growing reach that technology companies have into our daily lives, intimate habits, and vulnerable moments — with and without our permission. Alexa is hardly the first of our personal devices to be transformed into a police hotline. And given the sensitive nature of crime reporting, civil liberties experts wonder whether storing reports with a third party like Amazon might pose an obstacle to citizens hoping to report crimes anonymously.
Another major concern is cybersecurity. We don’t really know who has access to our communications with Alexa or a similar service, explained Sam Lester, an expert on consumer rights with the Electronic Privacy Information Center or EPIC, but we know that authorities have long sought evidence from our mobile phones, laptops, social media, and video games. In January 2017, Amazon refused to provide information from its servers to police who were investigating an Alexa user for a murder in Arkansas. But the case raised larger questions about why Amazon saves recordings and transcripts of all of your dialogue with Alexa for an indefinite period of time.
That is soon changing in Europe. The EU General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect in May, empowers citizens of the European Union to have significant control over the data they share with corporations, regardless of where that data is being stored. In the U.S. by contrast, courts have upheld the legal theory known as the third-party doctrine, which holds that citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they voluntarily give that information to a third party like Amazon. “Personal ownership of data is really important, which is why we think there needs to be very strict regulation,” Lester said. “We would like to see encryption in these products; we would like to see limits on data retention. And if there’s no need to keep the voice recordings, they should be destroyed.”
For now, Lancashire residents will have to opt in to communicate with law enforcement. But it’s possible that intelligence agencies have already been accessing expansive recordings from millions of voice assistants like Echo, Siri, and Google Home installed domestically and overseas. In 2015, EPIC sent a letter to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission asking that they investigate the sometimes dubious security of “always on” voice recordings in consumer products like Samsung TV, Hello Barbie, and Microsoft Xbox’s Kinect, among others. Such “smart” devices, which listen to us in our most private spaces, have long proven vulnerable to exploits by spies and hackers alike. The NSA and GCHQ’s speaker-recognition technology, as The Intercept pointed out in January, makes tracking targets through these devices very appealing.
“In some cases, the closest you get to unmediated thought is with these voice recordings,” Wood reflected. “People say really stupid things around these devices, and they are a gold mine of relatively unmediated data of what people are thinking.”