Correctional Phone Service Collects Biometric Data of People Who Talk With Prisoners–And Shares It With Law Enforcement

    Phone and video calls between incarcerated people and those on the outside are never private. The content of such calls is well known to be subject to law enforcement analysis. What’s less widely known is that data extracted from voices and images of those involved in conversations mediated by Telmate—a leading corrections communication company—are also shared with law enforcement.

    Telmate uses its “inmate communications solutions” to extract biometric data from both prisoners and visitors involved in calls. The technology can create unique “voiceprints” for each user by converting “voice recordings into a sound spectrogram” and “the digital image of a face. . . [into] facial geometries.” According to Telmate’s website, these are used both to “verify the inmate’s identity and for other law enforcement purposes.”

    Prisoner identity authentication—especially “for rule violations, including communications from unauthorized inmates”—is a key aim. Each incarcerated individual has a verified image and voiceprint on record, which is used as a standard when verifying and analyzing a call or video visit. Telmate continuously monitors the voices and faces present, to prevent attempts “to bypass an inmate’s calling restrictions, extort calling funds from another inmate, or trick investigators who are reviewing calls from the inmate.”

    Screen Grab of Telmate User Display (Source: Telmate Video)

    But Telmate’s biometrics are also shared with external law enforcement officials. The company’s website suggests that the data are often used to verify the identities for court cases. “I use voice biometrics in every court case I am in,” says Jason Bass, a detective in Oklahoma City, OK, in a Telmate promotional video. “One of the defenses for an inmate is, ‘That’s not me talking.’ When I get subpoenaed, I tell the court, ‘Telmate has numerous security features to ensure that the person is the one talking.’”

    Beyond merely identifying prisoners, correctional officers also use the technology to monitor their “unique physical and behavioral characteristics.” Telmate’s Advanced Voice Analysis “gives investigators the ability to identify parts of the conversation that may indicate potential violence to staff, violence to others, and deception,” the promotional video states. “And with Telmate’s Voice Stress Analysis, we can compare an inmate’s voice to past samples and identify trends of stress, depression, and changes in pitch and speed that frequently precede aggressive, suspicious, or life threatening behavior.”

    Visitors might not know that they can also be in the crosshairs of these surveillance technologies. According to Telmate’s privacy policy, the company may collect the biometric data of “visitors and share them with Law Enforcement.” In fact, “By signing up for an account or using a service, you expressly consent to Telmate’s collection, use and disclosure of your communications, including your biometric data.”

    A Visitor Speaking at a Telmate Kiosk (Source: Telmate’s Getting Out via Pinterest)

    And Telmate’s data collection extends far beyond biometrics. It includes the pooling of cookies, web beacons, “identifying information” (like telephone numbers, physical addresses, mailing addresses, billing addresses, birth dates and email addresses) and “financial information.” The privacy policy states that, in addition to payment card data, “We may also collect and store bank account data.” Furthermore, “Location Information Collected Through Mobile Applications” is retained by Telmate.

    Filter contacted Telmate for comment but had not heard back at publication time.

    Telmate does not technically own the data extracted from the communications, according to the privacy policy. Instead, the correctional facility where the call took place does, and their “use and disclosure of your personal information is subject to their own policies.”

    Justice journalist Brian Sonenstein reacted to this on Twitter: “Shuddering at the thought of DOC holding onto that sensitive info for families of incarcerated people.”

    Telmate’s technology is situated within a broader surveillance ecosystem that increasingly uses voiceprints and facial geometries to identify and track individuals. INTERPOL, the international police agency launched a global database called the Speaker Identification Integrated Project in 2018. It allows a law enforcement official to “upload an unknown voice and, regardless of the language it is speaking, match it to a list of likely candidates,” according to an Intercept report.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation previously developed its own biometric database. As of 2010, it offered a facial-recognition search function of a data source that includes 117 million adults, according to a 2016 report by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

    It remains unclear whether Telmate voiceprint and facial geometry data are funneled into these government-run biometric databases. Founded in 1998 as Pinnacle Public Services, Telmate was renamed in 2005 and acquired by Global Tel*Link in 2017. It is currently the country’s third largest correctional communications company.

    Video Still: Telmate Videos 

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