Ava Kofman – The Intercept
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.
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