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Prisons across the U.S. are quietly building databases of incarcerated people’s voice prints

Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people have had their voice added to the biometric database.

January 30, 2019 

By ​George Joseph, Debbie Nathan

ROUGHLY SIX MONTHS ago at New York’s Sing Sing prison, John Dukes says he was brought out with cellmates to meet a corrections counselor. He recalls her giving him a paper with some phrases and offering him a strange choice: He could go up to the phone and utter the phrases that an automated voice would ask him to read, or he could choose not to and lose his phone access altogether.

Dukes did not know why he was being asked to make this decision, but he felt troubled as he heard other men ahead of him speaking into the phone and repeating certain phrases from the sheets the counselors had given them.

“I was contemplating, ‘Should I do it? I don’t want my voice to be on this machine,’” he recalls. “But I still had to contact my family, even though I only had a few months left.”

So when it was his turn, he walked up to the phone, picked up the receiver, and followed a series of automated instructions. “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.’” Dukes said he repeated such phrases for a minute or two. The voice then told him the process was complete.

“Here’s another part of myself that I had to give away again in this prison system,” he remembers thinking as he walked back to the cell.

Dukes, who was released in October, says he was never told about what that procedure was meant to do. But contracting documents for New York’s new prison phone system, obtained by The Appeal in partnership with The Intercept, and follow-up interviews with prison authorities, indicate that Dukes was right to be suspicious: His audio sample was being “enrolled” into a new voice surveillance system.

In New York and other states across the country, authorities are acquiring technology to extract and digitize the voices of incarcerated people into unique biometric signatures, known as voice prints. Prison authorities have quietly enrolled hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people’s voice prints into large-scale biometric databases. 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.

Corrections officials representing the states of Texas, Florida, and Arkansas, along with Arizona’s Yavapai and Pinal counties; Alachua County, Florida; and Travis County, Texas, also confirmed that they are actively using voice recognition technology today. And a review of contracting documents identified other jurisdictions that have acquired similar voice-print capture capabilities: Connecticut and Georgia state corrections officials have signed contracts for the technology (Connecticut did not respond to repeated interview requests; Georgia declined to answer questions on the matter).

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. Some jurisdictions, for example, limit incarcerated people’s phone access if they refuse to enroll in the voice recognition system, while others enroll incarcerated people without their knowledge. Once the data exists, they note, it could potentially be used by other agencies, without any say from the public.

It’s particularly alarming, they add, that the technology’s use in prisons can ensnare people beyond their walls. “Why am I giving up my rights because I’m receiving a call from somebody who has been convicted of a crime?” asks Jerome Greco, a digital forensics attorney at New York’s Legal Aid Society. Greco argues that the mining of outside parties’ voice prints should require a warrant. “If you have a family member convicted of a crime, yet you haven’t been, why are you now having your information being used for government investigations?”

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