Prisoners’ rights groups are concerned about the use of new surveillance technology in U.S. prisons and jails, and they are sounding the alarm about potential abuses.
Voice of America reported in February that the Thomson Reuters Foundation uncovered documents from eight states showing that prison and jail authorities were using the Verus software, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan recorded phone calls for keywords.
The California-based company behind the software, LEO Technologies, makes use of Amazon’s powerful voice-to-text transcription service. While authorities have long recorded phone conversations on prison and jail payphones, the use of AI systems greatly expands their ability to conduct comprehensive surveillance.
The potential for privacy and rights violations led a coalition of more than 50 advocacy groups to demand a crackdown on the use of such surveillance technologies.
The groups wrote in a joint letter to the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) and state attorneys in New York that the “surveillance infringes on the rights of incarcerated Americans, many of whom have not been convicted and are still working on their defenses, as well as those of their families, friends, and loved ones.”
Besides the state of New York, LEO Technologies has contracts with Georgia and Texas, as well as various sheriff departments throughout the U.S.
The coalition of groups is saying this technology oversteps legal limits by targeting conversations unrelated to possible criminal activity or to the safety and security of detention facilities.
The DOJ provided a $700,000 grant to the sheriff’s office in Suffolk County, New York, to implement a pilot program of the AI-powered voice-to-text surveillance system in 2020. Authorities told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the system is essential for identifying inmates who are suicidal or gang members.
According to the Voice of America article, the DOJ is “reviewing technology programs that receive federal funding to ensure they are enhancing public safety while respecting constitutional rights.”
LEO Technologies revealed they have already scanned nearly 300 million minutes of calls going in and out of prisons and jails. They did not comment on the letter from the rights groups.
The groups also voiced concerns about another similar phone surveillance company, Securus, and “the possible recording of conversations protected by attorney-client privilege.”
However, a spokesperson for Securus claimed that the company is “committed to protecting civil liberties” and users can set attorney numbers to private, meaning “calls are not recorded and cannot be monitored.” The spokesperson said the company immediately deletes any “inadvertent” recordings.
“It seems like the regulators have been asleep at the switch at the federal, state, and local levels,” said Albert Fox Cahn, head of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, according to the article.
Bianca Tylek, executive director of the criminal justice nonprofit Worth Rises, noted that this kind of surveillance is especially problematic in county jails where people are held while their cases are pending and before being convicted.
“People who are innocent, who have the presumption of innocence, who cannot afford bail … should not be subjected to surveillance that no one else is,” Tylek said.
Another reason the rights groups are pressing regulators to block expansion of these surveillance systems is that they could potentially result in racial bias. Their joint letter pointed to research that documented voice-to-text tools have “a much higher error rate for Black voices,” said the article.
“Even absent discrimination, Verus and similar technologies exceed prison and jails’ lawful surveillance powers,” said the letter.
They also raised concerns about cost and mission creep. They noted the software can cost up to eight cents per minute, which could be passed on to incarcerated people and their families. The groups highlighted that the technology had already been misused to flag conversations that could cause problems for prison and jail administrators, like criticisms about their responses to COVID.
Tylek cautioned that authorities seldom relinquish surveillance powers once they have been put to use. She said that it is very difficult to put a stop to such practices once they are widely implemented.