EFF: The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Overt and Covert Surveillance of Prisoners Via Telephones and Tablets

The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Overt and Covert Surveillance of Prisoners Via Telephones and Tablets

In the novel 1984, George Orwell imagines a technology called a “viewscreen” which not only lets you watch TV but lets a surveillance state watch you. This omni-present panopticon helped “big brother” keep the citizens paranoid and under control. Now, thanks to the work of the notorious prison telephony company Securus, this nightmare can be a reality for millions of prisoners in the United States

Video visitation devices are a core business of Securus, allowing people in prison to talk to their friends, family, and attorneys over video chat services. While video visitation can be one of several appropriate forms of inmate communications, prisons have used this new service to limit in-person visitation hours or even cut them entirely. Also, these devices often provide low quality video chat at excessive prices--often reaching hours of inmate labor per minute of chat.

Worst of all, they now can record audio and video of imprisoned people surreptitiously, with no outward indicator. When the call is over, it can also perform biometric identification on the inmate or anyone the inmate was talking to. Although the friends and family of imprisoned people are often subjected to facial recognition when visiting a prison in person, this represents an even more intense level of surveillance by inviting it into the home of a visitor who is having a video visit with an inmate. 

Securus has also patented a method of overt video surveillance. In its patent document, Securus suggests that their communication devices (such as tablets) could notify the user that they are being recorded during one approved task and then secretly recorded during another. The covertly captured user’s face can then be processed with face recognition software. 

Flowchart image shows several steps including capturing the data, storing it, generating the biometrics, and comparing it with others

Flowchart showing Securus system for capturing audio and video for biometric use.

Securus poses a hypothetical situation where an inmate is attempting to log in to a prison communication device. The inmate may have their picture or video covertly taken if they fail the login attempt a predetermined number of times. That picture or video could then be matched with facial recognition to determine whether someone was trying to log into someone else’s account. 

Securus also provides the following troubling example: “if a correctional facility wants an inmate to acknowledge that he has read the facility's Inmate Handbook ... or the like, the resident may be required to enter his or her credentials on the resident facing device, after the resident viewed the material on the device. Whereupon, … the resident-facing device may take the inmate's photo at that time, not turning on the light, so the inmate will not know a picture is being taken.”

What if facial recognition or biometrics have a false negative, will a prisoner be punished because the algorithm didn’t recognize them one day? Facial recognition algorithms are of course not perfect and can have especially high failure rates for people of color and women. These patents could lead to false accusations, and punishments ranging from revoking visitation privileges to solitary confinement--making the already draconian U.S. prison system even more cruel. 

Securus intends covert surveillance not just against prisoners interacting with a phone or tablet, but also  prisoners who just happen to be standing nearby. In their patent, Securus suggests: “database may include one or more covert surveillance rules including, for example, …  a maximum threshold number of inmates allowed to be in different areas within the facility at a given time, etc.”

Also, Securus doesn’t limit its biometric surveillance to the face. According to the patent, its system also “may include biometric signatures of inmates (e.g., voice, facial, iris, fingerprint, etc.) and/or of other facility personnel (e.g., correctional officers, staff, etc.).” Given Securus’ lackadaisical attitude towards the privacy of inmates’ friends and families, we fear visitors may end up in this biometric database as well. 

Even the contemporary panopticon of the U.S. prison system is not enough to satiate the prison-industrial complex. With the disturbing technologies it is inventing, Securus is ensuring that people in prison and their families will be subjected to greater and greater intrusions to sustain the insatiable maw of carceral capitalism. 

Published September 13, 2021 at 06:45PM
Read more on eff.org


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