[Pnews] Prisons Across the U.S. Are Quietly Building Databases of Incarcerated People’s Voice Prints

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 30 13:00:55 EST 2019


  Prisons Across the U.S. Are Quietly Building Databases of Incarcerated
  People’s Voice Prints

George Joseph <https://theintercept.com/staff/georgejoseph/>, Debbie 
Nathan <https://theintercept.com/staff/debbie-nathan/>- January 30 2019

_Roughly six months_ ago at New York’s Sing Sing prison, John Dukes says 
he was brought out with cellmates to meet a corrections counselor. He 
recalls her giving him a paper with some phrases and offering him a 
strange choice: He could go up to the phone and utter the phrases that 
an automated voice would ask him to read, or he could choose not to and 
lose his phone access altogether.

Dukes did not know why he was being asked to make this decision, but he 
felt troubled as he heard other men ahead of him speaking into the phone 
and repeating certain phrases from the sheets the counselors had given them.

“I was contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on 
this machine,’” he recalls. “But I still had to contact my family, even 
though I only had a few months left.”

So when it was his turn, he walked up to the phone, picked up the 
receiver, and followed a series of automated instructions. “It said, 
‘Say this phrase, blah, blah, blah,’ and if you didn’t say it clearly, 
they would say, ‘Say this phrase again,’ like ‘cat’ or ‘I’m a citizen of 
the United States of America.’” Dukes said he repeated such phrases for 
a minute or two. The voice then told him the process was complete.

“Here’s another part of myself that I had to give away again in this 
prison system,” he remembers thinking as he walked back to the cell.

Dukes, who was released in October, says he was never told about what 
that procedure was meant to do. But contracting documents for New York’s 
new prison phone system, obtained by The Appeal in partnership with The 
Intercept, and follow-up interviews with prison authorities, indicate 
that Dukes was right to be suspicious: His audio sample was being 
“enrolled” into a new voice surveillance system.

In New York and other states across the country, authorities are 
acquiring technology to extract and digitize 
the voices of incarcerated people into unique biometric signatures, 
known as voice prints 
Prison authorities have quietly enrolled hundreds of thousands of 
incarcerated people’s voice prints into large-scale biometric databases. 
Computer algorithms then draw on these databases to identify the voices 
taking part in a call and to search for other calls in which the voices 
of interest are detected. Some programs, like New York’s, even analyze 
the voices of call recipients outside prisons to track which outsiders 
speak to multiple prisoners regularly.

Corrections officials representing the states of Texas, Florida, and 
Arkansas, along with Arizona’s Yavapai and Pinal counties; Alachua 
County, Florida; and Travis County, Texas, also confirmed that they are 
actively using voice recognition technology today. And a review of 
contracting documents identified other jurisdictions that have acquired 
similar voice-print capture capabilities: Connecticut and Georgia state 
corrections officials have signed contracts for the technology 
(Connecticut did not respond to repeated interview requests; Georgia 
declined to answer questions on the matter).

Authorities and prison technology companies say this mass biometric 
surveillance supports prison security 
and fraud prevention efforts. But civil liberties advocates argue that 
the biometric buildup has been neither transparent nor consensual. Some 
jurisdictions, for example, limit incarcerated people’s phone access if 
they refuse to enroll in the voice recognition system, while others 
enroll incarcerated people without their knowledge. Once the data 
exists, they note, it could potentially be used by other agencies, 
without any say from the public.

It’s particularly alarming, they add, that the technology’s use in 
prisons can ensnare people beyond their walls. “Why am I giving up my 
rights because I’m receiving a call from somebody who has been convicted 
of a crime?” asks Jerome Greco, a digital forensics attorney at New 
York’s Legal Aid Society. Greco argues that the mining of outside 
parties’ voice prints should require a warrant. “If you have a family 
member convicted of a crime, yet you haven’t been, why are you now 
having your information being used for government investigations?”

      The Spread of Voice Recognition Technology

Voice-print technology works by dissecting physical features 
that distinguish individuals’ voices, such as their pitch. With this 
data, the program’s algorithm generates a computer model of their vocal 
signatures, known as “voice prints,” which can be stored in a database 
for comparisons with utterances recorded in the future.

In recent years, voice recognition technology has come to be associated 
with consumer offerings, like Amazon’s Alexa 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3rCa0VL4AE> and Apple’s Siri 
<https://9to5mac.com/2018/04/16/machine-learning-journal-hey-siri/>, but 
the technology was originally 
developed for military and intelligence applications. Over a decade ago, 
as The Intercept reported 
U.S. intelligence agencies were using voice recognition programs to 
identify the voices of top Al Qaeda officials in their online audio 

Similarly, the algorithms and structure behind the prison 
telecommunications firm Securus Technologies’ particular voice software, 
known as Investigator Pro, were developed in part through a $50 million 
grant from the Department of Defense. The software was licensed to JLG 
Technologies, a company that Securus acquired in 2014 
According to Securus’s 2017 proposal for New York, the technology was 
developed because “DOD needed to identify terrorist calls out of the 
millions of calls made to and from the United States every day.”

But it wasn’t long before major prison technology firms, such as Securus 
and Global Tel Link 
began marketing the technology to U.S. jurisdictions that were seeking 
to extract and store voice prints associated with incarcerated people in 
their systems. “IPRO [Investigator Pro] has a 10-year track record of 
providing pinpoint voice accuracy capability country-wide in 243 states, 
county, and local correctional agencies,” notes Securus in the Pinal 
County contract.

The enrollment of incarcerated people’s voice prints allows corrections 
authorities to biometrically identify all prisoners’ voices on prison 
calls, and find past prison calls in which the same voice prints are 
detected. Such systems can also automatically flag “suspicious” calls, 
enabling investigators to review discrepancies 
between the incarcerated person’s ID for the call and the voice print 
detected. Securus did not respond to a request for comment on how it 
defined “suspicious.” The company’s Investigator Pro also provides a 
voice probability score, rating the likelihood 
that an incarcerated person’s voice was heard on a call.

Michael Lynch, an intelligence coordinator for the Alachua County Jail 
in northern Florida, confirmed that his county recently agreed to 
purchase Securus’s voice recognition program. Lynch said that the voice 
prints produced by the program will be permanently archived at Securus’s 
facility in Texas. He said the jail hopes the technology will address 
the problem of incarcerated people using each others’ personal 
identification numbers, or PINs. “The problem is inmates that are 
committing other criminal acts or contacting victims or witnesses and 
using other inmates’ PIN to do that,” he said in a phone call. “Voice 
[biometrics] will tell us who’s making the calls.”

Securus’s voice recognition program can also identify the voices of 
people outside prisons, both former prisoners and those who have never 
been incarcerated but communicate with people inside.

New York and Texas state corrections officials confirmed that their 
agencies retain the voice prints of formerly incarcerated people, like 
Dukes, allowing them to identify them by name if currently incarcerated 
people call them in the future.

And New York and Pinal County, Arizona, confirmed that their voice 
recognition programs can identify the voices of outside callers.

New York’s contract proposal with Securus states that outsiders’ voice 
samples can be used to “search for all other calls” in their recorded 
call database to find where those voices occur. In an email, New York 
prison officials confirmed that this program will give investigators the 
ability to extract a voice print from an outside caller and use it to 
“identify that a call recipient has participated in multiple phone 
calls.” They added that the program will not have names associated with 
outsiders’ voice prints.

In a statement, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Navideh 
Forghani also confirmed this outsider voice-tracking capability, noting 
that while their software does not identify non-incarcerated people by 
name, it can track “suspicious activities,” such as “multiple inmates 
speaking to one person on the outside on a reoccurring basis.”

With this technology, a press release 
for Investigator Pro notes, an investigator can now answer questions 
like, “What other inmates are talking to this particular called party?” 
and “Are any of my current inmates talking to this released inmate?”

Prisoners’ rights advocates worry that outsider voice surveillance 
technology could also be used to coordinate crackdowns against prison 
organizing campaigns.

“Using this technology to trace the voices of outside callers and flag 
those who speak with more than one person in a system, staff can use 
calls with outside organizers to quickly identify the incarcerated 
activist they support,” said Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections 
Accountability Project, which works to curb the influence of commercial 
interests in the criminal justice system. Tylek noted that during the 
2018 national prison strike, corrections staff routinely retaliated 
against incarcerated activists by using tactics like solitary 
confinement, job termination, and facility reassignment.

      The Pressure to Participate

Advocates assert that corrections agencies have been building up 
large-scale voice-print databases with limited input from the public or 
from incarcerated people and their families. While some state 
corrections agencies have put out public <http://www.doccs.ny.gov/> 
<https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/DOC/Pdf/SecurusPhonepdf.pdf?la=en> to 
families about payment options for new phone systems, they seldom 
mention the voice-print databases, which are rarely discussed outside of 
industry conferences 
and internal talks 
with contractors.

“Every time there’s a new contract, there’s new surveillance, but they 
don’t say anything,” said Tylek. “I’ve never seen authorities post a 
public notice about new surveillance updates or tell families.”

Keeping their plans opaque has allowed authorities to quietly pressure 
incarcerated people into giving up their biometric data — or to enroll 
them without their knowledge. According to Securus’s 2019 Investigator 
Pro contract with Alachua County, Florida (which includes Gainesville), 
“Inmates will participate in a covert voice print enrollment process.”

In Texas, state prisoners must enroll in the voice recognition program 
if they want to make calls. According to Jeremy Desel, a spokesperson 
for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Investigator Pro’s voice 
enrollment process is “the lock and key” to the Texas state prison phone 
system. Likewise, in Pinal County, Arizona, phone access is severely 
limited for prisoners who decline to enroll in the voice recognition 
program. “If inmates choose not to participate, they can still utilize 
the phone system but only to make phone calls to their attorneys,” said 
Forghani, the county sheriff’s office spokesperson.

In some cases, prisoners participate without even knowing, said Martin 
Garcia, a 33-year-old who is incarcerated at Sing Sing in New York.

“A lot of guys don’t know technology,” he said. “They’ve been in there 
so long, they’ve never heard of Google.” The voice enrollment procedure, 
he continued, is seen as “just another thing they follow to talk to 
their family.”

Garcia was upset to hear that Securus’s voice-tracking capabilities, as 
described in its approved contract with the New York State Department of 
Corrections and Community Supervision, could mine prison call databases 
to identify which other prisoners outside callers had contacted. “Are 
they criminals just because they’re talking to someone incarcerated?” he 
said. “To me, you’re criminalizing relationships. Some people may be 
hesitant to interact with me if they could be put in a database.”

After being briefed by The Appeal and The Intercept about the program, 
New York State Assembly Member David Weprin publicly called on the state 
Department of Corrections to give incarcerated people more choice 
regarding the voice recognition program. At a Tuesday hearing, Weprin, 
chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Correction, asked the Department of 
Corrections’ acting commissioner, Anthony J. Annucci, to add a provision 
that allows incarcerated people with legitimate concerns about voice 
surveillance to “not be denied phone privileges.” Annucci did not 
immediately agree to the request, instead pointing out that people have 
the option to make unmonitored calls to their attorneys.

In a statement to The Appeal and The Intercept, Weprin said he is 
“concerned with the deployment and use of voice recognition software” in 
New York state prisons and will be working with his colleagues to 
further investigate the technology.

      Building the Databases

The rapid, secretive growth of voice-print databases is “probably not a 
legal issue, not because it shouldn’t be, but because it’s something 
laws haven’t entertained yet,” noted Clare Garvie, a senior associate at 
Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “It’s not surprising 
that we’re seeing this around prisons, just because it can be collected 
easily,” she continued, referring to biometric voice data. “We’re 
building these databases from the ground up.”

The scale of prisons’ emerging voice biometric databases has not been 
comprehensively documented nationwide, but, at minimum, they already 
hold more than 200,000 incarcerated people’s voice prints.

New York’s Department of Corrections, which incarcerates just under 
<http://www.doccs.ny.gov/> 50,000 people, confirmed that approximately 
92 percent of its population had been enrolled in the voice recognition 
system. State corrections authorities for Florida, Texas, and Arkansas, 
which hold about 260,000 prisoners combined, also confirmed that they 
are using Investigator Pro’s voice recognition technology. Connecticut 
and Georgia’s state corrections systems, which incarcerate roughly 
and roughly 52,000 
<http://www.dcor.state.ga.us/Divisions/Facilities/StatePrisons> people, 
respectively, have also purchased Securus’s voice-print technology.

The databases of recorded calls from which prison authorities could 
search for outsiders’ voice samples could also potentially include 
millions of recorded calls for state and countywide systems. According 
to the design requirements New York’s Department of Corrections gave to 
Securus, for example, the company must be able to record every call, 
archive all call recordings for a year, and maintain any calls flagged 
for investigative purposes “indefinitely” through the life of the 
contract, which ends in 2021. (In the documents, Securus estimated that 
7 percent of prison calls made per year would total 1.5 million calls, 
suggesting that the call database could retain over 20 million calls.)

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