Prison Phone Monopoly Securus Under Fire Again, This Time For Doling Out Everybody's Private Phone Location Data

from the don't-pass-go,-don't-collect-$200 dept

For years now we've noted how a company by the name of Securus has managed to obtain a pretty cozy, government-supported monopoly over prison phone and teleconferencing services. Like any monopoly, this prison monopoly has pretty traditionally resulted in not only sky high rates upwards of $14 per minute for phone calls, but comically poor service as well. It's something advocates (like outgoing FCC staffer Mignon Clyburn) have been trying to rectify for years, only to have Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai completely deflate those efforts last year.

But Securus' monopoly -- and the government pampering and cronyism that helped create it -- has other additional costs as well. Interstate inmate calling service (ICS) companies effectively buy their privileged positions from local governments, who then expect some favors in return. For example, Securus was recently accused of routinely spying on privileged inmate attorney communications, information that was only revealed after Securus was hacked in late 2015. Given the generalized apathy for prison inmates and their families ("Iff'n ya don't like high prices, don't go to prison son!") reform on this front has been glacial at best.

Meanwhile, the problems caused by these government-sanctioned monopolies continue to pile up. A recent court case has also exposed how some law enforcement officials also make routine use of a Securus service that helps track people’s cellphones without court orders. While the service is marketed to government as a way for law enforcement to track fleeing drug treatment or even Alzheimer's patients, zero oversight means it's routinely abused. In this case, the law enforcement official used the Securus service to not only track members of the general public, but Judges and other law enforcement officials as well:

"The service can find the whereabouts of almost any cellphone in the country within seconds. It does this by going through a system typically used by marketers and other companies to get location data from major cellphone carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, documents show.

Between 2014 and 2017, the sheriff, Cory Hutcheson, used the service at least 11 times, prosecutors said. His alleged targets included a judge and members of the State Highway Patrol. Mr. Hutcheson, who was dismissed last year in an unrelated matter, has pleaded not guilty in the surveillance cases."

In addition to being another warning about the threat of government-pampered monopolies, the scandal again highlights how our nonexistent to lax consumer privacy laws (especially for wireless carriers) routinely come back to bite us. In this instance, Securus was easily able to buy cell carrier location data, then upload it to a company portal. Law enforcement officials can then easily plug in a cell phone number to track its location, provided they supply an "official document giving permission." Overview of the validity of these documents appears to be half-assed at best.

We've long noted that wireless carriers routinely sell browsing, location and other data to absolutely everyone, and while these companies insist that "anonymizing" the data protects user identities (it doesn't), the rules governing the use of such data are laughable at best. Efforts to then pass more meaningful privacy protections then get quickly and repeatedly scuttled by influential lobbyists, as companies fight tooth and nail against any measures that could possibly hamstring user data monetization efforts.

As you might expect, Securus took no ownsership of the scandal or the routine abuse of private data:

"Securus requires documentation and reasonably relies on the professionalism and integrity of our law enforcement customers and their counsel. Securus is neither a judge nor a district attorney, and the responsibility of ensuring the legal adequacy of supporting documentation lies with our law enforcement customers and their counsel."

Senator Ron Wyden, meanwhile, has fired off a letter to FCC boss Ajit Pai (pdf), lamenting the fact that the oversight of this entire process is the glorified equivalent of a "pinky promise":

"I recently learned that Securus Technologies, a major provider of correctional-facility telephone services, purchases real-time location information from major wireless carriers and provides that information, via a self-service web portal, to the government for nothing more than the legal equivalent of a pinky promise. This practice skirts wireless carrier's legal obligation to be the sole conduit by which the government conducts surveillance of Americans' phone records, and needlessly exposes millions of Americans to potential abuse and surveillance by the government."

Securus is the perfect storm created by lax privacy rules, rampant cronyism, the government's tendency to pamper and embolden monopolies, and the routine skirting of wiretap and privacy law by corporations and law enforcement alike.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 May 2018 @ 10:53am

    Securus is not the problem

    As you might expect, Securus took no ownsership of the scandal or the routine abuse of private data

    In this case, they're right. How do they get data on people who aren't in prison? As Wyden writes, they "[purchase] real-time location information from major wireless carriers". So forget about Securus and its warrant policy; another company could get data the same way, and implement whatever access policy it wants to. It's not abusing private data—if it's available on the open market it's not private at all.

    The real scandal is that the phone companies are selling data people thought was private. They are the ones that should be requiring a warrant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 May 2018 @ 2:49pm

      Re: Securus is not the problem

      > companies are selling data people thought was private

      This has been known for a long time. You're paying to be the product.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 May 2018 @ 4:52pm

        Re: Re: Securus is not the problem

        The general idea has been known for a long time, but the details shock people every time they're revealed (hint: if this were ethical, they wouldn't have to do it in secret). This isn't something people are getting for free, like Facebook; it's a service they're paying for, paying more than people in most other countries pay.

        This shit sometimes seems like a parody of itself, as if these companies want strict GDPR-like regulations. Nobody should be surprised when that happens.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    I.T. Guy, 14 May 2018 @ 11:07am

    "Securus requires documentation and reasonably relies on the professionalism and integrity of our law enforcement customers and their counsel."

    [Laughs]

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 14 May 2018 @ 12:00pm

    The only private data...

    ... is that with no commercial value.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Scam Whatis, 14 May 2018 @ 12:02pm

    Private Prisons For Profit... The Land Of The Free

    See subject. Stick a fork in us. We're done.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rip, 14 May 2018 @ 12:48pm

    Wait what?

    How exactly does someone go about buying location data from a mobile ISP to allow for geolocating a mobile phone?

    I feel this should be given much more scrutiny.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 14 May 2018 @ 2:24pm

    WHO SAID??

    Who said they have to be Fair? Balanced? CHEAP on what our states and gov do??

    YEARS ago when the states and FED, ran their own services it was Somewhat cheap.. THEN it was reminded of 2 things..
    The fed/State was not supposed to run its OWN business if a corp was doing the same in competition..
    AND KICK BACKS ARE COOL..esp if you OWN part of the company..

    There are a few words for this..Anyone know them??
    Conspiracy?
    Undo influence?
    more??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 May 2018 @ 2:34pm

    The fed/State was not supposed to run its OWN business if a corp was doing the same in competition.. AND KICK BACKS ARE COOL..esp if you OWN part of the company..

    There are a few words for this..Anyone know them??

    Fascism is strongly associated with the merging of corporate and government interests, though the term "oligarchy" might be more applicable here—"A government run by only a few, often the wealthy."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 May 2018 @ 2:39pm

      Re:

      Kakistocracy

      is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 14 May 2018 @ 2:52pm

    "Given the generalized apathy for prison inmates and their families ("Iff'n ya don't like high prices, don't go to prison son!") reform on this front has been glacial at best."

    Funny, I just read "Researchers Find Breathalyzers To Be Just More Faulty Cop Tech Capable Of Putting Innocent People In Jail". Seems like the only way to avoid being put in jail in the US is to not be in the US. Mere innocence is not a defence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 May 2018 @ 7:36pm

      Re:

      Seems like the only way to avoid being put in jail in the US is to not be in the US

      Uhhh.... not so effective. See also: Kim Dotcom etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Virgin Mobile User, 14 May 2018 @ 3:30pm

    You can try it yourself at https://www.locationsmart.com/try/

    ZDNet reported a link to try this for yourself:
    https://www.locationsmart.com/try/

    As a private citizen, I gave it my cell phone number, my name and e-mail address and consent via an SMS reply. After that, he web portal permitted me to look for my cell.

    My iPhone "location services" including GPS is OFF. When I searched using the "A-GPS" option it said my number was "not locatable at this time."

    The "Cell Tower" search presents a Google Map with a generous (mile diameter?) circle that included my location and a pin that I assume is the tower. Virgin Mobile is my carrier but the screen said Sprint.

    I'm a little surprised it did not text me when it subsequently revealed my approximate location using the web portal. Sure, I gave consent, but a reminder would have been polite, no?

    After playing with the demo, I terminated my LocationSmart user agreement via e-mail to the company and asked them to send me a list of all the prior searches of my phone just for fun since I had not knowingly consented to any.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2018 @ 3:53am

    some facts to add ...

    1) Securus has no monopoly in this. We recently evaluated RFP bid responses from 4 Vendors for inmate phone services.

    2) inmates have to agree to location tracking before making calls. This in turn allows pretty effective control of who inmates are speaking to and about what related to criminal patterns and plots.

    3) inmate phone services aid in reducing jail time by affording ease of communications for arraignments, discussions with Legal assistance, and Judge interviews. Not to mention staying in contact with friends and family.

    4) incarcerated inmates should expect no privacy such as a normal person outside of jails would expect.

    5) disclaimer; not representing this as all perfectly good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2018 @ 5:10am

      Re: some facts to add ...

      incarcerated inmates should expect no privacy such as a normal person outside of jails would expect.

      You're missing the point of this story: normal people outside of jails, who are not communicating with inmates, are having their privacy invaded (location tracked) by this prison-phone company.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        carlb, 15 May 2018 @ 7:27am

        Re: Re: some facts to add ...

        Actually, incarcerated inmates should expect privacy when talking with their lawyer criminals, er, criminal lawyers.

        Pity that this same level of privacy does not extend to other sensitive communications, such as medical records or communication between rape victims and psychologists, doctors and counsellors. While they nominally exist, the protections for medical records are weak compared to the protections for communications between criminals and lawyers.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2018 @ 8:55am

          Re: Re: Re: some facts to add ...

          Actually, incarcerated inmates should expect privacy when talking with their lawyer criminals, er, criminal lawyers.

          Content privacy, yes, but not location privacy. Come to think of it, why do the prisons even need the tracking? Isn't it always going to give them the prison's address?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2018 @ 8:32am

      Re: some facts to add ...

      "This in turn allows pretty effective control of who inmates are speaking to and about what related to criminal patterns and plots."

      Sounds like an effective tool not just for inmates but also for government and board rooms.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 15 May 2018 @ 8:53am

        Re: Re: some facts to add ...

        Sounds like an effective tool not just for inmates but also for government and board rooms.

        There's the solution. Write this lobbyist-tracking app and publish the result, and we'll quickly see a warrant requirement—Bork all over again.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Philly Bob, 15 May 2018 @ 10:29am

    Senator Ron Wyden, meanwhile, has fired off a letter to FCC boss Ajit Pai, lamenting the fact that the oversight of this entire process is the glorified equivalent of a "pinky promise."

    And Pai fired back... "who gives a s*it because, you know... money."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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