AI Surveillance Of Prison Calls Scooping Up Millions Of Conversations, Producing Little Actionable Info

from the everything-scales-but-the-effectiveness dept

There’s not much privacy in prison. And there’s going to be even less. Inmates are warned that all calls are monitored. How often this goal is achieved is impossible to say, but tech advances are making it a reality. Attorney-client privilege is supposed to be respected in prisons, but we’ve already seen instances where it hasn’t been, thanks to automated monitoring equipment.

What’s already been a problem is going to get worse. AI is doing the eavesdropping, and it’s far from perfect. A new report from Thomson Reuters shows prisons are investing heavily in automation to ensure as many conversations as possible originating from prisoners are recorded, captured, and mined for useful info.

When the sheriff in Suffolk County, New York, requested $700,000 from the U.S. government for an artificial intelligence system to eavesdrop on prison phone conversations, his office called it a key tool in fighting gang-related and violent crime.

But the county jail ended up listening to calls involving a much wider range of subjects – scanning as many as 600,000 minutes per month, according to public records from the county obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There’s the stated intent: “gang-related and violent crime.” Then there’s the actual use. Utilizing a scanning system powered by Amazon’s speech-to-text tech, Suffolk County jailers utilized keyword searches to flag conversations for further examination. Some keywords were questionable, like the Spanish word “mara,” which can refer to a gang or just a group of friends. But it wasn’t just serious criminal activity being flagged.

Sheriff’s deputies in Suffolk County also circulated a regular intelligence brief of prisoners the system flagged for illegally collecting unemployment benefits while in the jail.

Then there are the seriously concerning keyword scans deployed elsewhere by prisons and jails using similar tech.

Emails and contracts from eight states show the tool is used to scan a wide range of calls, for example conversations involving mention of the Spanish word for lawyer or accusations that detention facilities were covering up COVID-19 outbreaks.

If the conversations including terms for lawyer were flagged as potentially off-limits, then the tech is being used responsibly. If those were flagged for further review, that’s a huge problem. So is the flagging of COVID-related conversations, which could indicate prisoners were being flagged for complaints and possibly retaliated against for informing others about unsafe conditions. While some use was related to containing outbreaks (as is detailed in the documents obtained by Reuters), there are also indications that information about prison conditions was gathered for less-than-idealistic reasons.

In Calhoun County, Alabama, prison authorities used Verus to identify phone calls in which prisoners vouched for the cleanliness of the facility, looking for potential ammunition to fight lawsuits, email records show.

Is this really a good use for tech purchased with the stated intent that it would be used to combat criminal activity behind bars? And those flagging calls for complaints about conditions seem intent on thwarting whistleblowers or heading off lawsuits by subjecting complainants to retaliatory activity.

A lot of what’s happening here appears to be mission creep. While the systems have shown some effectiveness in obtaining information about criminal activity and identifying prisoners who engaged in self-harm or are suicide risks, a lot of what’s being flagged appears to be the result of opportunism. The legal justification is already there: all calls are monitored. If so, why not use the systems to flag anything of interest to prison officials, even if it’s far outside of the stated scope of the surveillance?

Why not, indeed. That’s how the system used in Suffolk County scooped up 2.5 million phone calls in the space of one year but returned only 96 “actionable intelligence reports.” Not every call is worth listening to, but now prison facilities have the luxury of listening to all of them and no reason not to.

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