Focus: AI surveillance spread across US prisons, concerned about “crossing the line” operations | Reuters

[Los Angeles / Washington, 15th Thomson Reuters Foundation]-Sheriffs in Suffolk County, NY, have given the federal government $ 700,000 to budget for an artificial intelligence (AI) system to intercept phone calls in prison. I requested (about 80 million yen). It was positioned as an indispensable tool for countermeasures against violent crimes related to criminal organizations.

A sheriff in Suffolk County, New York, has charged the federal government $ 700,000 to budget an AI system for intercepting prison phone calls. It was positioned as an indispensable tool for countermeasures against violent crimes related to criminal organizations. Photo taken in February 2019 in a prison in Chatham County, Georgia (2021 Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

However, official county records obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation have resulted in county prisons intercepting far more extensive calls. The system was actually scanning 600,000 minutes of calls per month.

Since 2019, Suffolk County has conducted an initial experiment on the AI ​​scan system “Bellas” sold by LEO Technologies, which is headquartered in California. Velas uses Amazon Web Services’ natural language processing and transcription tools to transcribe calls flagged by keyword search.

LEO Technologies and law enforcement officials say “Bellas” is an important tool for keeping prisons and detention centers safe and fighting crime. However, there are criticisms that such a system tramples on the right to privacy of prisoners and outside families.

“It’s incredibly scary and hairy to have such a quick and large-scale surveillance capability,” said Julie Mao, vice chairman of Just Futures Law, a legal profession specializing in immigration issues. Says.

In addition to Sfork County, dozens of county detention centers and state prisons in seven states, including Houston, Texas and Birmingham, Alabama, have already “Bellas” to monitor inmate calls, according to LEO Technologies. Is said to have been introduced.

Deputy Sheriff Kevin Catalina, who has supported the operation of “Bellas” in Suffolk County, said the system “certainly contributes to public safety and the safety of staff and prisoners.”

According to emails and contracts sent from eight states, calls scanned using this tool are widespread. For example, conversations that include the Spanish word for “lawyer,” and criticism that detention facilities are concealing the spread of the new coronavirus infection (COVID-19).

In the case of Suffolk County, an email from the sheriff’s office says that staff may search for multiple, sometimes safe words. For example, “mara” may mean a criminal organization or simply a group of friends.

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In addition, deputy sheriffs in Suffolk County circulated regular investigation reports on inmates who were flagged as being illegally receiving unemployment benefits while in prison.

The series of trials gives US authorities extensive discretion to monitor inmates’ conversations for security and crime control purposes.

“All county prisoners have been informed that their calls have been intercepted,” said Deputy Sheriff Catalina.

Although not commented by LEO Technologies, the company’s website is an “objective” way to warn of threats to prisoners about “Bellas” and “prevents criminal activity in correctional facilities.” , Support ongoing investigations with definitive evidence. “

In addition to LEO Technologies, there are several companies that provide or are working towards providing such monitoring services. Two major prison telephone infrastructure providers, Securus and GTL, also sell surveillance services.

A Seculus spokeswoman said in a written statement, “We are committed to protecting the civil liberties of all users of our products.”

We asked GTL if they are still developing such technology and what abuse prevention measures they have introduced, but the company declined to comment.

LEO Technologies advertises “Bellas” as the most advanced system in the market.

The document, obtained in a disclosure request to the Missouri Correctional Bureau, describes Velas as unique in that it provides near real-time analysis and useful reports compared to competing products.

Flagging “behavioral patterns of prisoners and their affiliates” has also been evaluated as a clue for law enforcement agencies to identify members of criminal organizations.

Instead of looking at hours of call logs, Deputy Sheriff Catalina said, “By targeting keywords that fit a particular purpose, staff can use their time more efficiently. Will be. “

But Beryl Lipton, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who is investigating prison surveillance systems, said he could use Velas to connect prison calls to criminal organization activity. He says there is a risk of involving even innocent people.

“Often I don’t know if I’m on that list or how to get it removed from that list,” said Lipton, a law enforcement agency in Suffolk County that criminalized Latin American men. He also pointed out that there were cases of misidentification as a member.

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We asked Suffolk County to comment on these criticisms, but did not get a response.

According to Suffolk County documents, the information obtained from the Velas system has already been provided to existing and potential LEO Technologies customers, more than 20 law enforcement agencies, immigration authorities and departments in charge.

Documents show that LEO Technologies partnered with several prison authorities to extend the scope of monitored calls to the topic of viruses in detention centers last year, when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was at its most serious. ing.

According to a data sheet distributed to customers by the company, in the spring of 2020, thousands of calls were flagged based on keywords such as “cough” and “infection”, spreading the infection among prisoners. It is emphasized that it contributed to the containment.

However, this technology was not used solely to detect the potential spread of COVID-19.

In email records, prison authorities in Calhoun County, Alabama, will use Velas to identify calls in which prisoners are asking for cleanliness of the facility and provide materials to counter lawsuits against prisons. It is shown that it was.

James Sexton, Chief Operating Officer of LEO Technologies, mentioned the Alabama case as an example of a potential use of the system in an email-based sales campaign to a prison in Cook County, Illinois. ..

“Sheriffs believe that (the call thus identified) will help them avoid the liability disputed in civil proceedings by prisoners and activists,” the COO wrote.

A Cook County spokeswoman said the county had partnered with LEO Technologies to consider a pilot operation to identify cases of “self-harm” in the facility, but decided that “Bellas” was too expensive. rice field.

Stephanie Crent, an attorney at Columbia University’s Night First Amendment Institute, said prisons are allowed to carry out surveillance related to “legal purposes in prison.” There is.

According to public records, “Bellas” is used on a daily basis, for example, to identify inmates who may be thinking of self-harm or suicide, and to find murderers and rapists inside and outside correctional facilities. You can see that it has been done.

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But Mr. Crent said surveillance activities such as those carried out in Alabama “just crossed the line.”

A similar operation is taking place in Safolk County, in response to a call in which a prisoner told his father that “the detention center is concealing the outbreak of the new coronavirus” and is discussing contact with the media. The “Bellas” system was flagging.

Official reports on the call were shared between more than 10 employees and LEO employees, according to Suffolk County documents.

Crent said these cases could be used by AI-powered surveillance tools to identify prisoners who are trying to speak up for abuse or become whistleblowers.

“It’s not a legitimate goal to protect the interests and reputation of the people who run the detention center,” he said after examining the email.

Also, while the activities of criminal organizations and serious crimes are being emphasized, authorities from New York state used “Bellas” to use “Veras” to illegally receive benefits from illegally brought in mobile phones. , Is getting clues to more minor crimes.

Earlier this year, Texas signed a partnership agreement with LEO Technologies for a facility that accommodates immigrants trying to cross the border from Mexico, which has been booming recently. Prior to this, the Governor issued a state of emergency regarding the influx of immigrants.

“We can see that the reasons for justification change over time,” said Daniel Schwartz, a lawyer who joins the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, by examining parts of the document.

According to STEAK HOUSE documents, in the county alone, between the introduction in April 2019 and May 2020, more than 2.5 million calls using “Veras” were monitored, and 96 “” It is said to have brought about a useful research report.

“This technology was able to detect and prevent inmates’ suicides, detect trafficking, and prevent and resolve violent crimes,” said Deputy Sheriff Catalina.

But Crent said it’s subtle whether the massive number of interception of calls in the millions is justified by the 96 useful reports. “There is a so-called’avalanche effect’. Once these technologies are introduced, it becomes difficult to stop using them.”

Schwartz pointed out that with the increasing adoption of advanced surveillance systems in prisons across the United States, some sort of curb must be put in place.

“What happens to people if the only means of communication they can have with their families and loved ones becomes part of the subject of extensive surveillance? We need to think about that,” Schwartz said. Told.

(Avi Asher-Schapiro, David Sherfinski, Translated by: Acrelen)


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