Big Brother might be coming in the future but Little Sister Alexa is here NOW

An audio version of this blog is available on APN:

Ever since I was a small child, growing up in the 60s and 70s, the future always held in it a device, entity, or artificial being that knew all and saw all. Commonly, it was referred to as “Big Brother”. While there’s no denying that Artificial Intelligence, at a widescale deployment, is on the immediate horizon, it’s quite apparent that elements of that exist today and are quickly becoming embedded in our daily lives.

Thanks to Apple, Siri has been helping me on a daily basis do the most mundane things. Stopping by a colleague’s house while on a recent trip to Santa Clara, “Hey Google:” was the catchphrase of the evening as we all enjoyed this magical box on the kitchen counter answering nearly every question we could throw at it, including, “Hey Google, what’s my name?” for my colleague and his wife who had trained their voices on the app.

Early in July this year, an incident in New Mexico happened where an Amazon ECHO apparently called 911 on it’s own, sort of . When I first read the account, I immediately debunked it knowing that the Amazon Echo doesn’t have the capability of making a phone call over the public switched telephone network. Within a few days, Amazon spokespeople had confirmed this fact, however the story continued, fueled by misquotes, and misunderstood quotes made by the local police department who quickly retracted and corrected some of their initial statements about Alexa initiating a 911 call.

Just as the national news was starting to calm down, Wired Magazine published the story, “An Amazon Echo Cannot Call the Police – But Maybe It Should”, opening Pandora’s proverbial box. Those that are technically savvy may ask why we don’t use technology to automate our lives making processes easier. Those on the opposite end of the spectrum will question privacy invasion capabilities of these devices. Despite valid arguments on both sides of that coin, the problem at hand for public safety officials is the potential volume of calls and false calls that they will receive.

In my days as a police dispatcher in the early 80s, a motor vehicle accident on the highway may end up generating a couple of phone calls and a few shout outs on the CB Radio. Today, with the CTIA saying cellphone saturation is at a record 120.6% for 2016, it’s not uncommon to receive 20 or 30 calls for a single incident such as a motor vehicle accident. Based on this, the sheer number of reports coming in on each incident can cripple even a midsize agency, let alone the vast majority of 911 Public Safety Answering Positions that are staffed with 4 to 6 people or less, when fully staffed.

Based on this, the question at hand is not one of the current capabilities of the technology, rather a questions now become more policy and procedure driven, such as:

  • How we make sure that public safety staffing is at a level that has the ability to receive this new influx of emergency, and nonemergency traffic?
  • How do we make sure we don’t accidentally TDoS the 911 network by enabling potentially millions of attack points in households across the nation?
  • How do we ensure that location information is properly provisioned and utilized, especially if these devices are connected through the IP network and Internet?

Is Big Brother watching? Not likely, at least not today.
Is Little Sister watching? The answer to that might shock you, and the real issue at hand is, if she is, who is she telling?

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