Demonstrators attend a rally in solidarity with hunger-striking inmates at the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex in Queens, New York on January 13, 2022. Photo: AFP
Dozens of rights groups are demanding a crackdown on an artificial intelligence system used to eavesdrop on US prisoners’ phone calls, after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation highlighted the risk of rights violations.
Documents from eight states showed prison and jail authorities were using surveillance software called Verus, which scans for key words and leverages Amazon’s voice-to-text transcription service, to monitor prisoners’ phone calls.
California-based LEO Technologies, which operates Verus, says it has scanned close to 300 million minutes of calls going in and out of prisons and jails in the US, describing the tool as a way to fight crime and help keep inmates safe.
But a coalition of civil and digital rights groups said the surveillance sometimes overstepped legal limits by targeting conversations unrelated to the safety and security of detention facilities, or possible criminal activity.
“This surveillance infringes 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,” the groups wrote in a joint letter.
Four different letters were sent to the attorney general’s office in New York State, the state’s Inspector General and the federal Department of Justice (DOJ).
The DOJ provided a $700,000 grant to the sheriff’s office in Suffolk County, New York, to implement a pilot of the AI-powered voice-to-text surveillance system in 2020.
Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, who helps run the Verus program in Suffolk, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the system is crucial for alerting jail authorities to people who are suicidal and to identify gang members behind bars.
“It saves lives,” he said.
A DOJ official said the department is reviewing technology programs receiving federal funding to ensure they are enhancing public safety while respecting constitutional rights.
A spokesperson for the New York State Inspector General’s Office said in emailed comments that they would review the letter and “thoroughly investigate” complaints that are sent in.
More than 50 advocacy groups are part of the campaign, among them the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Worth Rises, the Innocence Project, and Access Now.
They also raised concerns about the prison phone call company Securus, and the possible recording of conversations protected by attorney-client privilege.
A Securus spokesperson said the company is committed to protecting civil liberties that users can set attorney numbers to private – meaning calls are not recorded and cannot be monitored – and that they act immediately to delete “inadvertent” recordings.
A representative for LEO did not respond to requests for comment on the letters.
“It seems like the regulators have been asleep at the switch at the federal, state and local level,” said Albert Fox Cahn, head of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which helped draft the letter.
Unproven, invasive, biased
As Suffolk County was trialling Verus, it also expanded beyond New York, winning state contracts in Georgia and Texas, and in local sheriff’s departments across the US.
The rights groups urged regulators to block further expansion of surveillance tools in prisons and jails, saying they have the potential to produce racial bias and undermine privacy rights, without any clear track record of success.
In their letter addressed to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, the groups cited research showing voice-to-text tools have a much higher error rate for Black voices. Black people are disproportionately represented among US prisoners.
Documents obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the pilot site in Suffolk County showed Verus was used to analyze more than 2.5 million calls between its launch in April 2019 and May 2020 – leading to 96 “actionable intelligence reports.”
While Catalina did not specify how many prisoners had been disciplined or faced charges based on those leads, he said the tool had helped prevent 86 suicides.
The rights groups also raised concerns about mission creep, noting the technology had been used to identify conversations that could flag problems for prison or jail administrators – such as complaints about their response to COVID-19.
Catalina said the sheriff’s office reviews all its surveillance strategies on a monthly basis to make sure that their terms used in the Verus system are appropriate, and that it has never found any issues.
The surveillance of detainees’ phone calls is especially troubling in county jails, where people are frequently held before being convicted of any crime, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of criminal justice nonprofit Worth Rises.
“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,” said Tylek.
Besides infringing the privacy of incarcerated people and their relatives, AI-powered surveillance in prisons and jails could also lead to increases in the cost of phone calls for prisoners, rights campaigners fear.
The average 15-minute phone call from a jail already costs $5.74, according to a 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, while 2015 research found more than a third of families reported getting into debt to pay for calls or visits.
Worth Rises, which has been pushing to reduce the cost of prison phone calls across the country, is urging state and local law enforcement to offer calls for free.
Emails between LEO and sheriff’s offices, which were obtained through public records requests, show use of LEO’s Verus system could cost as much as 8 cents per minute.
They also give a picture of how the company worked in tandem with law enforcement officials to raise funds – enlisting PR personnel, helping draft federal grant proposals, and making appeals to lawmakers.
In Suffolk County, the Sheriff’s office discussed plans to pass the cost onto prisoners themselves if grant funding ran out, the emails reveal.
The office said that while it had considered passing along the costs to prisoners, they ultimately decided not to.
Tylek said the federal government should not be funding pilots involving systems like Verus, warning that authorities rarely relinquish surveillance powers once they have been granted.