Echo is a smart home device with a virtual assistant, Alexa, that responds to voice commands and can, among other things, play music, tell you the weather or search the web. One of the things it cannot do, however, is call 911, an Amazon spokeswoman, Rachel Hass, said by email.
“In order for a call to be made and answered, the receiving end needs to also have Alexa calling and messaging set up,” she wrote, adding that “there is no capability to switch the call to another phone, device or service.”
The device also would have to be prompted first by four “wake words”: Alexa, Echo, computer or Amazon.
Trey Forgety, director of government affairs and information and security issues for NENA: The 9-1-1 Association, said he would be “sort of surprised” if Alexa could respond as it was described by officials.
“I have not heard of an Alexa device being a problem from a 911 perspective because they do not have native telephone capabilities,” he said.
He said Echo behaves differently than Siri, the virtual assistant on iPhones that can place calls with a prompt. He recalled a case when a television news station aired a report that included the phrase “Hey Siri, call 911,” which led to a flood of calls to emergency dispatchers from phones responding to the command.
The Albuquerque story began on July 2 as Milana Honorio and her boyfriend, Eduardo Barros, were house sitting for her parents in Albuquerque, a criminal complaint said.
When her text message tone sounded, Mr. Barros, 28, accused her of cheating on him and reacted angrily.
Mr. Barros said he was “going to kill her if she called the cops,” the complaint said. “Did you call the sheriff?” he asked.
Mr. Barros grabbed her 9 mm handgun, hit her in the face and kicked her at least 10 times in the face and stomach while she was on the floor, the complaint said.
“Barros told her she was not going anywhere and he was going to kill her,” it said.
A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, Deputy Felicia Romero, said the call was prompted by the phrase “call the sheriff” and that on the 911 recording, Ms. Honorio could be heard saying, “Alexa, call 911.”
Deputy Romero said on Monday that the authorities did not know the finer details of how the call was placed, adding, “All we know is Alexa saved a life.”
Pressed about the doubts raised by Amazon, she said on Tuesday in an email that Alexa was used “along with the home phone system” to call 911.
Referring to Ms. Honorio, Deputy Romero wrote: “The 911 recording is consistent with her statements, as she can be heard screaming in the background, ‘Alexa call 911.’ I cannot confirm which device was connected to the home phone system.”
Glenn Platt, director of interactive media studies at the Miami University, in an email on Tuesday outlined a series of steps that might explain what happened.
The Echo can’t interpret what you mean, but it can activate calls that are in a contact list, he wrote.
“So if you have ‘mom’ on your phone in your contact list, you can say ‘call mom’ and then your phone will call mom,” he wrote. “But if, for example, you say, ‘call the police’ and there is not a contact on your phone called ‘the police’ then the Echo (Alexa) won’t be able to call it.”
He said Echo has “skills,” which are permissions and rules tied to a user’s personal account and information. Even if the device heard “call the sheriff,” it would not have done anything. It would have had to be prompted first by one of the key words, have the phone skill enabled and a number in the contact list for “the sheriff.”
At best, the phone would have called, and an operator would have heard the ambient conversation, but the Echo itself would not have called, would not have been able to communicate anything or indicate the location of the call, he wrote.
The complaint said deputies responded to a “911 open line/hang up.” It was not clear how the Echo was configured, and efforts to reach Ms. Honorio were unsuccessful.
Mr. Barros faces aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and related charges after a six-hour standoff. Ms. Honorio had injuries to her face but refused medical attention and her daughter who was also in the house, was uninjured, the department said.
The episode was the latest to raise questions about the role of smart home devices that respond to voice commands.
Last year, detectives investigating a murder in Arkansas were seeking access to audio that may have been recorded on an Echo device.
Mark A. Testoni, the president and chief executive of SAP National Security Services, who tracks issues of big data and privacy, said a broader question raised by the episode in New Mexico is to what extent consumers are aware of a device’s capabilities and whether clearer disclosures — similar to nutritional labels on food packages — are needed.
“These are things we are going to debate,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”