Steven Soderbergh's Kimi Is More Rooted In Fact Than Fiction

Steven Soderbergh's film "Kimi," released in February of this year, is about an Alexa-type computerized personal assistant that is overseen by personal technicians who are tasked with listening to customers' vocal instructions and sussing out any sort of colloquialisms or linguistic vagaries that the computer may not have been familiar with. One such technician is Angela (Zoë Kravitz), an agoraphobe who, while listening to a garbled recording, finds that she might have accidentally overheard a murder in progress. Part "The Conversation," part "Rear Window," and part "Copycat," "Kimi" is a taut thriller of the highest order, with clever setups and payoffs throughout; it's significant that the apartment above Angela's is under construction. To paraphrase playwright Anton Chekhov "If in the first act you have hung a nail gun on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." 

Directed, shot, and edited by Soderbergh, "Kimi" is ultimately about how difficult it is to extricate vital information from a computer corporation who would sooner hush up any granule of scandal than confront anything approaching actual malfeasance. It's also very much up-to-date about relationships, dating, and love in time of COVID. Kravitz is terrific in the read role, bringing both detached cynicism and intense anxiety to a role that requires to her to be simultaneously vulnerable and resolute. 

The screenplay for "Kimi," written by blockbuster author David Koepp, possesses a premise clever enough for any Hollywood pitch meeting, and would have been chilling enough as a fiction. Adding to the chills, however, is the fact that the premise seems to have been inspired by a real-life case of an Amazon Alexa device recording a potential crime in progress.

The actual case

In November of 2019, Florida police were in the midst of investigating the murder of a young woman named Silvia Galva, who had died of a stab wound the previous July. Galva, according to Miami's CBS affiliate, was being pulled out of a bed adorned with spears when she grabbed one of the bedposts. Somehow the bedpost snapped off and impaled her. The suspect in custody was one Adam Reechard Crespo. According to a report on NBC News, the Broward County Sheriff's Office were looking into Crespo's Amazon Echo as a potential source for evidence as the smart speaker might have been a witness to the crime. Amazon Echoes are voice-activated and record their owners' voices as to follow their instructions. In saying "Alexa," the device beeps and begins recording, processes a demand, and fulfills operations accordingly. 

At the time of the NBC report, the Sheriff's office had secured a warrant for the Echo recordings, and said recordings were sent to the Hallandale Beach Police Department for analysis. Crespo's attorney was also keen on hearing the recordings, maintaining that his client was innocent. 

Is Amazon spying on you?

Amazon has maintained that their devices, while recording your voice, are not constantly listening in on your conversations or recording your every word. The company is also not going to share any recordings, however benign, with anyone unless presented with a warrant. Amazon was quoted in the NBC report as saying that the company "does not disclose customer information in response to government demands unless we're required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."

Because of the fashion in which an Amazon Echo operates — and this operation is reflected in "Kimi" — it cannot record unless ordered to do so. Amazon said that their device is only operating when a blue light around the widget's top rim is visible. 

According to an article in Wired, cases wherein Echo recordings are collected are typically used to find evidence of wrongdoing, not to exonerate an accused individual. In that same article, Amazon claims to have been asked for over 3,000 recordings by local police departments all over the country last year. That constituted a 24% increase from the previous year. Scanning smart phones, smart homes, and wearables are now regular parts of most crime scene investigations. Devices typically keep a timestamp of all demands and activities, allowing police to create a timeline of movements. A lot of evidence about a person's activities can be gleaned from their smart devices. 

One can hope, however, that the information being recorded by your smart devices is being stored responsibly as Amazon says, and not being used for insidious purposes as in "Kimi." 

We can take comfort in the fact that "Kimi" is mostly fiction. Apparently.