Incarcerated People Push Back Against Biometric Surveillance

February 28, 2019

Incarcerated people are subjected to pervasive surveillance. Filter recently reported on the private correctional communications company Telmate, which uses biometric analysis to surveil incarcerated people’s voices by converting them into “voice prints,” a unique identifier extracted from the qualities characteristic to one’s voice.

But, as is so often seen, people caged by the state find ways to push back.

Retrieved thanks to a FOIA request filed by reporter George Joseph, an email between officials working for another correctional phone service, Securus Technologies, reveals that incarcerated users are refusing to enroll or sabotaging their enrollment in the biometric voice sampling often required to use the service.

In the email, a Securus Senior Account Manager writes, “for this inmate to blow into the phone and be able to enroll defeats everything that we are trying to accomplish.”

To clarify, companies like Securus and Telmate aim to prevent “rule violations, including communications from unauthorized inmates,” as Telmate’s website states, and extortion of funds between inmates. Additionally, outside law enforcement can access these voiceprints to aid in unrelated criminal investigations. Telmate’s Advanced Voice Analysis system even allows corrections officials to monitor a person’s behavior, “identifying trends of stress, depression, and changes in pitch and speed that frequently precede aggressive, suspicious, or life threatening behavior,” states a promotional video by the company.

Securus refuses to let prisoner resistance deter its surveillance efforts. If the incarcerated user won’t voluntarily submit to enrollment, then the service, according to the company’s senior account manager, will extract the voiceprint anyway.

“If the inmate does NOT enroll OR enrolls improperly, we will do a covert enrollment once they begin their conversation,” the senior account manager wrote. “The system will take a sampling of their voice and enroll them automatically based on the PIN that was entered.”

This won’t be the first time Securus has enrolled users “covertly.” As reported by The Appeal in a recent investigation in collaboration with The Intercept, a jail in Alachua County, Florida was provided with a “covert voice enrollment process” by Securus.

Joseph tells Filter about another email obtained from Travis County Correctional Complex regarding incarcerated people refusing to enroll in the biometric voice sampling system during its initial roll out. Instead of being involuntary enrolled, “They were told that they would not be allowed to use the phone system once turned on,” writes Joseph.

The resistance of incarcerated people speaks for itself. People are wary of how something as personally integral as their own voice is being digitized and used to monitor their presence.

“I was contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on this machine,’” John Dukes, a Sing Sing prisoner, recounted to The Appeal and The Intercept. “But I still had to contact my family…”

UPDATE: March 4, 2019, George Joseph informed Filter about Travis County Correctional Complex’s refusal to allow phone service use for non-enrolled inmates.

Screenshot: Securus Technologies via Vimeo

Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard

Sessi is an independent drug journalist and drug-user activist. She lives in New York City.

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