Rights Groups Urge Crack Down on US Prison Surveillance Technology

FILE – A death row inmate uses a phone from his cell in at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Dec. 29, 2015.

Dozens of rights groups are demanding a crackdown on an artificial intelligence system used to eavesdrop on U.S. prisoners’ phone calls, after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation highlighted the risk of rights violations.

Documents from eight states showed prison and jail authorities were using surveillance software called Verus, which scans for key words and leverages Amazon’s voice-to-text transcription service, to monitor prisoners’ phone calls.

California-based LEO Technologies, which operates Verus, says it has scanned close to 300 million minutes of calls going in and out of prisons and jails in the United States, describing the tool as a way to fight crime and help keep inmates safe.

But a coalition of civil and digital rights groups said the surveillance sometimes overstepped legal limits by targeting conversations unrelated to the safety and security of detention facilities, or possible criminal activity.

“This surveillance infringes the rights of incarcerated Americans, many of whom have not been convicted and are still working on their defenses, as well as those of their families, friends, and loved ones,” the groups wrote in a joint letter.

Four different letters were sent to the attorney general’s office in New York State, the state’s Inspector General and the federal Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ provided a $700,000 grant to the sheriff’s office in Suffolk County, New York, to implement a pilot of the AI-powered voice-to-text surveillance system in 2020.

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