Voice printing and AI monitoring of calls in American Prisons and Jails – a Balancing Act

With over 2.5 quintillion bytes of information created daily and over 90 percent of the world’s data generated in the past two years alone, one must question if we are giving the proper checks and balances to the use of data mining and possession of data in terms of personal privacy versus the needs of others.  ‘Others’ is a blanket term to include national security or the security of others as well as the companies that are profiting off the use of this information, at times without the consent or knowledge of those they encounter.

Checks and balances must examine not only short term use but also possible long term implications.   And the mining and possession of the data should be conducted and stored by known entities for as long as is needed for the purposes identified to fulfill a reasonably stated purpose for a greater good.  For example, NSA gathers hundreds of millions of recorded data from phone calls for national security.  It is their work which has led to some of the most dangerous terrorists being captured thereby indicating the need for national security being paramount to the privacy of individuals.  But how does this play out in our prison and jail system?

For those of you who have seen an episode of “Orange is the New Black” you know that prison conversations are monitored by law enforcement whether it be during visitation periods or phone calls.  Although each institution has its own variation of the rules, almost universally these calls are an expensive minute by minute undertaking which may become even more expensive with the use of this new monitoring technology.  More to the point,  according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit think tank, the prison phone call industry amasses a staggering $1.2 billion dollars a year with research indicating the cost for technology to monitor the calls of inmates through the use of AI costing approximately $500,000 to $600,000 per 1000 inmates.   These numbers beg a few questions.  First, who is fronting the bill for this technology – is it the taxpayer or the inmate.  If it is the taxpayer is this a cost of under $2 per day per prisoner reasonable.  And if it is the inmate does it put an unfair advantage on incarcerated individuals with limited financial means.  Secondly, does the correctional facility have the right to impose this type of monitoring on its inmates and under what circumstances?  The quick answer to that question is yes, the correctional facility does have the right to impose monitoring of conversation.

Going back to Constitutional Law, a criminal defendant is not afforded all the same rights as others.  More specifically they lose their right to privacy and therefore anything they say within the confines of a prison or jail may be monitored and recorded unless it interferes with their right to Due Process within the framework of the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments.  The complication to privacy concerns, therefore, revolve around the thought that (1) can inmates adequately communicate with their attorney if the cost for monitoring calls is brought on them – this thought is accentuated with those needing a free public defender as most times that is the preferred mode of communication between attorney and client (2) if they do talk to their attorney on the phone is there a breach of attorney-client privilege (3) if there is a breach does it present a situation whereby they may say something to incriminate themselves.  These issues of privacy must be weighed against the rights afforded to all, including criminals, as laid out in the above-stated Amendments.

Another issue that must be weighed with the use of voice printing and AI monitoring is for what purpose is this conducted.  According to various reports, correctional facilities utilize this technology for 5 basic reasons (1) cost-effective use of time.  Although guards walk around the facility to gather information the process is slow.  The use of technology is a more rapid approach to picking up keywords that would signal concern.  (2) Prevent crimes before they happen.  By monitoring calls, correctional facilities have been able to stop criminal activity before it happens.  For example, they have heard prisoners discussing killing a witness or smuggling in drugs.    (3) Gather information to solve cases.  Prisoners have been known to have discussions on the phone whereby they may give information as to the whereabouts of a body or identifying information on a murderer.  (4) Technology has been instrumental in reducing the suicide rate among prisoners.  It is no secret that the suicide rate among prisoners is soaring and is now currently four times as high as the general population.  Technology has been able to pick up keywords or phrases that will alert them to the possible mental health of the prisoner and prevent a suicide before it happens (5) voice printing or the recording of one’s unique voice for future voice recognition analysis on calls is an important way to identify people on a call.  If a known convicted, and later released, terrorist for example is on the phone or in the background and his voice is heard, the authorities will be able to recognize it through this technology.

But as beneficial as this use is there are some weighing points to address.  First, information must be stored.  Who is doing the storing and at what cost?  Also, do they sell this information to other companies for profit?  Let’s face it data mining is big business.  Take 23andMe for example.  When you do a saliva test to find out your ancestry, you are not only giving permission to 23andMe to analyze your saliva but you are also giving them permission to resell your DNA to other places as well including pharmaceutical companies. And then there is the question regarding an innocent man who has been subjected to voice printing.  What happens to his data and how is it used in the future?   And what is most concerning is there are reports that prisoners in select facilities are being denied their right to use a phone unless they consent to voice printing.  This in effect is taking away their Due Process and Freedom of Speech.

Technology need must be weighed depending on type of institution.  Prisons are facilities for people convicted of felonies whereas a jail is on a local level for those awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes.  Therefore it should be weighed if jails are in need of such monitoring as much as prisoners are in today’s current market.

And perhaps the greatest weighing centers on the idea of a monitored person’s right to know they are being monitored and being given a transcript as to what was said and to whom was it sent and where is it stored.  Data is a hot commodity but the use of technology for the gathering and storing of information needs to be periodically assessed and weighed.