Alexa's Future As A Crime-Fighting Virtual Cop Is Still Far Away

A police department in Britain has started using Amazon's Alexa to broadcast daily briefings in people's homes, with the longterm goal of making the smart assistant a key part of the police force.

"The work that we're doing now is first and foremost our ability to push out information to the public that they may want and need," Rob Flanagan, head of Innovation for Lancashire Police, told Gizmodo. "So this may be missing persons, it may be people who are wanted, it may be to alert them to things that are going on in the local community. So essentially, what you can say to Alexa is 'give my my briefing' and [it] will read to them anything we put out that we want the public to know."

Later this month, Lancashire police will release a new Alexa "skill" to the public that, when prompted, responds with a short news briefing, updated daily. The pilot is ongoing until March. People can't file reports directly through the device, but eventually, Flanagan hopes future updates will allow Alexa to answer generic questions about how to report crime, updates on missing persons in the area, and which numbers to call for specific issues. But, Flanagan says, updating the public-facing Alexa is only the beginning.

Longterm, he sees a separate voice-activated smart assistant device developed from the ground up specifically for police.

"There would be one for the public and then there will be something else we can use internally," he said. "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."

In the future, he imagines a smaller device could be either in a police car or on their person, like a body camera. When officers begin their shifts, they could be briefed on the day's events via Alexa. The same if there's an ongoing situation and officers at multiple locations need updates.

"The technology is there for us to be able to do it, but obviously it takes a long time for us to develop something that we can put into use," he said.

For now, Flanagan says, the biggest hurdle is data security. Police databases contain a wealth of sensitive information, including details on convictions, open cases, and crisis response plans. A hack would be calamitous. A future device would have to be connected to the cloud, constantly updating, but would require safeguarding.

"[What we want to know is] is there going to be a safe and secure way for us to store some of our data in the cloud so that we can then utilise some of these technologies... to deliver information to our officers much faster," he explains.

After the pilot ends in March, Flanagan plans to relay the results to other UK police departments, with the goal of pushing the new idea forward.

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