AI surveillance takes U.S. prisons by storm

A security camera sits on a building in New York City March 6, 2008. The New York City Police Department are using evidence from video tapes from nearby buildings to catch a suspect involved in a bombing at the Armed Forces Career Center. REUTERS/Joshua

A security camera sits on a building in New York City March 6, 2008. The New York City Police Department are using evidence from video tapes from nearby buildings to catch a suspect involved in a bombing at the Armed Forces Career Center. REUTERS/Joshua

What’s the context?

U.S. prisons are installing AI-powered surveillance to fight crime, documents seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show, but critics say privacy rights are being trampled.

  • Detention facilities install system to scan phone calls

  • Advocates hail value in fighting crime, prison safety

  • Critics say privacy risks may outweigh benefits

By Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON - 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.

Beginning in 2019, Suffolk County was an early pilot site for the Verus AI-scanning system sold by California-based LEO Technologies, which uses Amazon speech-to-text technology to transcribe phone calls flagged by key word searches.

The company and law enforcement officials say it is a crucial tool to keep prisons and jails safe, and fight crime, but critics say such systems trample the privacy rights of prisoners and other people, like family members, on the outside.

"T​​he ability to surveil and listen at scale in this rapid way - it is incredibly scary and chilling," said Julie Mao, deputy director at Just Futures Law, an immigration legal group.

Suffolk County is among dozens of county jails and state prisons in seven U.S. states including major metro areas such as Houston, Texas, and Birmingham, Alabama, that LEO says have so far implemented the Verus system to monitor inmates' calls.

Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, who helped run the program in Suffolk County, said the system "unquestionably benefits public safety, and the safety of staff and inmates".

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.

In Suffolk County, emails from the sheriff's office show officials sometimes searched for words with multiple or benign meanings such as "mara", which can mean gang or simply a group of friends.

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.

A series of court rulings have given U.S. authorities wide scope to use surveillance of prisoners' conversations as long as they are working to ensure safety and fight crime.

"All county inmates are notified that their phone calls are monitored," Catalina said.

LEO Technologies, which declined to comment, says on its website that Verus is an "objective" way to flag threats to incarcerated people, "disrupt criminal operations within correctional facilities and assist ongoing investigations with critical evidence".

Innocent people

The company is one of several that are offering or working to provide surveillance services, including the two main firms that already provide the infrastructure for prison phone calls, Securus and GTL, both of which market monitoring services.

"We are committed to protecting the civil liberties of all those who use our products," a spokesperson for Securus said in a written statement.

GTL declined to comment when asked whether it was still proceeding with the technology and what safeguards were in place.

LEO advertises Verus as the most advanced system on the market.

In documents obtained through a records request to the Missouri Department of Corrections, it is described as unique among competitors in offering near-real-time analysis and actionable reports.

It is also hailed as a means to help law enforcement identify gang members by flagging "patterns of behavior among inmates and their associates".

Instead of trawling through hours of recorded calls, Catalina said the system "allows staff to be more efficient with their time by honing in on keywords that meet specific objectives."

But using Verus to link people on prison phone calls to gang activity risks sweeping in innocent people, too, said Beryl Lipton, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who investigates prison surveillance systems.

"There's often no way to figure out if you're on that kind of list, and how to get off it," she said, adding that law enforcement in Suffolk County had a history of erroneously labeling Latino men as gang members.

Suffolk County did not respond to a request for comment on Lipton's criticism.

'Stretch the limit'

Intelligence gleaned from the Verus system is already shared with current and potential LEO clients around the United States, and more than two dozen law enforcement and immigration agencies and divisions, according to documents from Suffolk County.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, LEO - in partnership with prison authorities - expanded its focus to monitoring telephone conversations about the virus in detention facilities, documents show.

A data table circulated by the company to clients showed it had flagged thousands of calls based on keywords including "cough" and "infection" in the spring of 2020, highlighting its role in containing outbreaks among prisoners.

The technology was not just used to detect possible COVID-19 outbreaks, however.

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.

As part of an emailed sales pitch to the jail in Cook County, Illinois, LEO's chief operating officer, James Sexton, highlighted the Alabama case as an example of the system's potential uses.

"(The) sheriff believes (the calls) will help him fend off pending liability via civil action from inmates and activists," he wrote.

A spokesman for Cook County said it had explored a pilot with LEO to help identify instances of "self-harm" in its facilities, but decided the technology was too expensive.

Prisons are allowed to undertake surveillance related to "legitimate penological goals", said Stephanie Krent, staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Public records show Verus is routinely deployed, for example, to identify inmates who might be contemplating self-harm or suicide, or find murderers and rapists inside and outside of correctional facilities.

But Krent said surveillance operations like the one carried out in Alabama "really stretched the limit".

During a similar operation in Suffolk County, the Verus system flagged a phone call in which an inmate tells his father the jail is covering up a COVID outbreak, and discusses contacting the media.

An official report about the phone call was shared with nearly a dozen prison staff members and LEO employees, documents from Suffolk show.

Such incidents demonstrate how AI-powered surveillance tools can be used to identify prisoners who speak out against abuse or want to become whistleblowers, Krent said.

"Protecting the interest and reputations of the people who run the jail is not a legitimate goal," Krent said after reviewing the emails.

'Avalanche effect'

And despite the emphasis on gang activity and serious crime, emails from New York show authorities have begun using Verus to get leads on more minor offenses - from using contraband cell phones to benefit fraud.

Earlier this year, Texas awarded a contract to LEO to work with facilities dealing with a recent surge in migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, after the governor declared a state of emergency.

"You can see how the justification changes over time," said Daniel Schwarz, a technologist with the New York Civil Liberties Union who reviewed some of the documents.

In Suffolk County alone, Verus was used to monitor more than 2.5 million phone calls between its implementation in April 2019 and May 2020 - leading to 96 "actionable intelligence reports", according to county documents.

"This technology has detected and prevented inmate suicides, uncovered human trafficking, and prevented and solved violent crimes," Catalina said.

But Krent said it was not clear whether the 96 reports justified sweeping up several million phone calls.

"There's an avalanche effect. Once a technology like this is implemented it's hard to let it go," she said.

With prisons around the United States rolling out more advanced surveillance systems, Schwartz said limitations must be put in place.

"We need to think about what happens to people when the only communication they have with their families and loved ones comes with a big surveillance target on their backs," he said.

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