Voice Prints: The Building of a Mass Audio Surveillance Technology

Voice Prints: The Building of a Mass Audio Surveillance Technology

As though the United States of Surveillance couldn’t get any more pervasive, recent investigations conducted by The Intercept and The Appeal have revealed American prisoners are being forced to provide “training data” for “voice-print recognition algorithms” which private contractors are building for a “biometric surveillance system that listens in on prisoner phone calls.” The process was reportedly rolled out in secret as voices between prisoners and free citizens were recorded — raising questions about its constitutionality.

Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated citizens — who are still entitled to their rights — have their “voice prints digitized” within these prisons databases. In their conversation with John Dukes, a prisoner of New York, the Intercept learned that guards and a corrections counselor would force prisoners to either speak random phrases into a telephone being repeated by an automated system or would lose access to their right to a phone call without reason. To this day, the prisoners are reportedly never told what their voices are being used for. 

“I was just contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on this machine,’” Dukes recalled. “But I still had to contact my family, even though I only had a few months left. It said, ‘Say this phrase, blah, blah, blah,’ and if you didn’t say it clearly, they would say, ‘Say this phrase again,’ like ‘cat’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the United States of America’.” The irony of the last statement is rich given that documents reviewed for authenticity by these publications explained citizens, both incarcerated and not, were being monitored by these prison authorities — presenting no warrant or reasonable cause for such an invasive process.

“Prison authorities have quietly enrolled hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people’s voice prints into large-scale biometric databases,” write journalists George Joseph and Debbie Nathan. “Computer algorithms then draw on these databases to identify the voices taking part in a call and to search for other calls in which the voices of interest are detected. Some programs, like New York’s, even analyze the voices of call recipients outside prisons to track which outsiders speak to multiple prisoners regularly… these authorities and prison technology companies say this mass biometric surveillance supports prison security and fraud prevention efforts. But civil liberties advocates argue that the biometric buildup has been neither transparent nor consensual.”

The software is reportedly being provided by Securus, “a notoriously abusive private security firm with a track record for gross privacy violations [such as financially] gouging prisoners and their families,” which is also being developed through a $50,000,000 payment made by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Their justification for the technology is that phone calls can be used to identify terrorists, which is within the interest of national security, though raises questions about the database the government is seeking to establish.

“New York’s contract proposal with Securus states that outsiders’ voice samples can be used to ‘search for all other calls’ in their recorded call database to find where those voices occur,” the journalists continue, citing an email from the prison officials of New York who confirmed that the program gives investigators “the ability to extract a voice print from an outside caller and use it to ‘identify that a call recipient has participated in multiple phone calls.’” They added that the program will not have names associated with outsiders’ voice prints without a warrant or cause. This has rightfully raised concern among prisoner and privacy rights advocates concerned the surveillance technology could be used to “coordinate crackdowns against prison organizing campaigns.”

“Using this technology to trace the voices of outside callers and flag those who speak with more than one person in a system, staff can use calls with outside organizers to quickly identify the incarcerated activist they support,” said Bianca Tylek, director of the criminal justice system group known as the Corrections Accountability Project, stating no notice about the voice prints system was given. “Every time there’s a new contract, there’s new surveillance, but they don’t say anything. I’ve never seen authorities post a public notice about new surveillance updates or tell families.”

The Securus proposal isn’t just exclusive to the big apple. The publication found examples in Texas, Florida and Arizona where state prisoners must enrol in the very same voice recognition program if they want to make phone calls — using the same intimidation methods across the country. “If inmates choose not to participate,” said Navideh Forghani, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson speaking with the publications, “they can still utilize the phone system but only to make phone calls to their attorneys.” When coerced into this decision, it’s no wonder why New York’s Department of Corrections, which incarcerates 50,000 people, confirmed that “approximately 92% of its population had been enrolled in the voice recognition system” against their will or through due process.