AP NEWS

Voice-print technology monitors inmates’ calls in Florida

May 6, 2019

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A sophisticated voice-identity technology that monitors inmates on prison telephones has been installed in at least 23 Florida counties and has been used to bring criminal charges against inmates in at least one of them, a Fresh Take Florida investigation found.

The technology produced by a secretive, Dallas-based company is designed to make and store voice prints of inmates and to ensure they are using prison phones under their own identities, rather than secretly making calls using the IDs of other inmates.

Inmates throughout Florida are compelled to agree to monitoring by the software developed by Securus Technologies, called Investigator Pro, or they risk losing or limiting their phone privileges. But there are unanswered public policy questions about the technology: What happens to the voice records of defendants who are acquitted or whose criminal charges are dropped? What happens to voice records of innocent civilians whom inmates call from jails? What restrictions exist in using those voice records for other purposes, by governments or private corporations? What happens if the software mistakes someone’s voice for another’s?

The technology was first revealed in a January report by the Intercept, an online news organization, but it has been difficult to find out details of the technology because the company that produces it has been tight-lipped. According to a memo obtained by Fresh Take Florida, the company has advised facilities to stick to a list of talking points when approached by journalists about the technology.

The company is privately held and said it works with more than 3,400 public safety, law enforcement and corrections agencies across the U.S. and that its services are used by more than 1.2 million inmates. But it has not discussed its technology or its implications in extensive detail, describing it only as an “essential tool for law enforcement” that can detect and prevent serious crimes.

A Securus executive, Joanna Acocella, declined to answer questions about the company or its software. She said in a statement that the tool has prevented “serious criminal activity, including violence within prisons, and harassment of witnesses and victims of domestic violence.”

In Gainesville, court records show that a felon with a lengthy rap sheet of drug and violence charges has been accused of using other inmates’ ID numbers to call people surreptitiously. Since the latest arrest of Roosevelt Smoaks in February, the Securus software has tracked calls he allegedly made to his girlfriend, his mother and a bail bondsman while using someone else’s identity.

“I was informed by Investigator Pro, a software platform associated with Securus, that there was a high probability that Smoaks had made numerous phone calls using the PINs of other inmates,” wrote Michael H. Lynch of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. Lynch said in court files that both he and the software separately were able to recognize Smoaks’ voice on the recorded calls.

Smoaks subsequently was charged with nine counts of criminal fraud and impersonation, all felonies. He has pleaded innocent and is being represented by a public defender.

Investigator Pro was also used in at least two other cases in Alachua County alone to support criminal charges against inmates, according to court records reviewed by Fresh Take Florida.

The software “uses continuous voice identification technology to determine what inmate(s) are speaking on the call, detect certain three-way call violations and help investigators find correlations between calls that might otherwise go undetected,” according to the company’s contract with Alachua County, obtained under public records laws.

Voice identification creates a unique digital fingerprint based on the voice it detects in an audio recording. That can be stored and used by Investigator Pro to compare against unknown voices in other recordings and identify them.

Internal records obtained by Fresh Take Florida said the software uses a proprietary algorithm to generate a numerical formula based on a person’s voice. The company says in documents that actual voice clips or audio samples aren’t stored on its computers in Texas, but the unique value associated with the person’s voice is stored there and can only be analyzed using the Investigator Pro software. It’s unclear how many tens of millions of voices across the United States are represented in the company’s data.

“The function of it is to identify you,” said Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that has raised questions about the technology. “Even if they claim that it’s being stored separately and that the data that they’re storing is not itself personally identifiable, the whole point and purpose of creating that digital identifier is to subsequently identify you.”

Mackey likened it to other types of biometric technology, like facial recognition. A device might not store an actual photo of the owners’ face, but it creates a digital sequence that is uniquely identifiable based on the scan of the face.

There appears to be little oversight about how long Securus stores the data or whether it can be used for other purposes now or in the future, Mackey said.

“There’s no backend protection or limit on how long they get to keep this personally identifiable information about you,” he said. “They’re just sort of collecting up all of this data and keeping it in perpetuity.”

Some Florida counties began using the software as early as 2014, soon after Securus acquired JLG Technologies, a company that had been spearheading the development of voice biometric technology.

In most counties, Securus funds the upfront cost of the use of its technology, according to contracts reviewed by Fresh Take Florida. The phone call and video visitation rates that inmates and their callers are charged are paid to Securus to pay off the debt. Counties are contractually obligated to ensure that Securus makes its money back in full by the end of the contract term. Otherwise they owe the remaining balance, which they can choose to pay or renew their contracts until the call rates pay the debt.

Each county also earns a commission on the general revenue made from its correctional facilities. Some get other perks as well. The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office received a $100,000 signing bonus for using the company, according to the county’s contract.

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Reporter Brandon Meyer contributed to this story.