This story originally appeared in The Appeal, a nonprofit criminal justice news site.
In most places, when you are arrested and brought to jail, you give up your wallet, your phone, your street clothes, and your fingerprints, too. But in Fort Bend County, Texas, a few miles outside Houston, there’s something else you must relinquish if you want to use the jail phone: your “voice print.”
Voice prints are unique, digitized vocal signatures that enable authorities to conduct voice recognition analysis on calls. Authorities extract them by having incarcerated people repeat certain rote phrases into a phone. An algorithm uses the phrases to generate voice prints, which are stored in a database and can be used to automatically identify voices on jail calls.
As The Appeal and The Intercept recently reported, correctional institutions nationwide have built databases with hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people’s voice prints. But civil liberties advocates say this quiet acquisition of biometric information is particularly problematic in jails because pretrial detainees are presumed innocent. And even if charges are dropped or they are found not guilty, their prints can be retained.
Many cities and states use a voice recognition program known as Investigator Pro, developed by Securus Technologies, a prison telecommunications firm. A review of contracts, county documents, and interviews with authorities across the country identified several county jails and detention centers in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Michigan, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Wisconsin that are known to use, or have purchased, the technology.
The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office Detention Facility in Texas, which houses mostly pretrial detainees, is one of them. Officials there and in other jails say voice prints are taken to prevent prisoners from using each other’s personal identification numbers, or PINs. Sometimes incarcerated people who owe money to each other barter with phone call minutes, explains Capt. Daniel Quam, a Fort Bend jail administrator, and authorities want to track who is actually on the phone.
“Those [minutes] become currency to be traded,” says Sgt. William Pailes, a Fort Bend sheriff’s office administrator. “Even though we preach, ‘You are not to let anyone else use this,’ of course they do. We can’t prevent them from making phone calls.”
So voice prints are collected from anyone who “comes through the door” of the jail, even if that person is being held pretrial and has not been convicted of anything, says Quam.
If a person is ultimately released from jail, the voice print may remain in the database, he notes.
“Unless Securus or the sheriff’s office receives an expunction order, that information is still able to be resided in the system and utilized,” Quam says in a phone interview. “Unless we get that [order], it doesn’t get deleted.” Securus holds the voice print data, generated by its own algorithm, on its own network and cloud, he explained, so if someone wanted to get his or her print expunged, it is Securus, not the jail, that would need to destroy the data.
Elected officials are concerned about the prominent role that private corporations, like Securus Technologies, are playing in this biometric buildup nationwide.
“There are real reasons to be concerned whenever the government can force an individual to provide biometric data and hand it over to a private company,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee who has pushed federal regulators to investigate Securus’s data-sharing practices, said in a statement to The Appeal. “If Securus is making money from biometric data seized by the government, Americans have a right to know. Securus needs to explain exactly how this personal information is being used, and whether it’s being shared or sold.”
Sent Wyden’s statement, the company did not respond directly, but defended its use of the technology in an email.
“Our Investigator PRO technology has been an essential tool for law enforcement in preventing serious criminal activity, including violence within prisons, and harassment of witnesses and victims of domestic violence,” says Joanna Acocella, vice president of corporate affairs for Securus. “We’re proud to deliver those results while also safeguarding individual privacy and security.”
Critics of the technology aren’t convinced, and say privacy concerns raised by the program are magnified when it’s used on a pretrial population.
In December 2018, Cynthia Huster-Forrest was arrested in Travis County, Texas, on charges including unauthorized use of a vehicle, manufacturing or delivering drugs, and a parole violation. She was initially held in a jail in downtown Austin. Huster-Forrest remembers the strange experience she had about five hours after arriving at the jail and just after she was fingerprinted. She was led to a phone where a sheet of paper was on the wall nearby.
“Here,” a jail official said. “Listen to the prompts and read this.” Huster-Forrest recalls reciting words from the paper like “United States of America,” and then “this long paragraph, like ‘The fox ran up the hill. The lady brought the pail to the lake.’ A bunch of weird little sentences.” After that, she was instructed to say her name.
A Travis County Jail spokesperson confirmed that people in the county’s correctional facilities must be voice printed in order to make phone calls. When asked what happens to the voice prints if a person is adjudicated not guilty or has charges dropped, she responded that Securus would have to answer that question.
According to Securus, a request to delete voice data–whether from a jail detainee or prisoner–would be evaluated based in part on the conditions of the person’s release and whether an expunction order was in place.
But privacy advocates say the burden should not be on nonconvicted people to get these records expunged.
“Defendants and their attorneys should be made aware if agencies are collecting any form of biometrics, including voice and face prints,” says Clare Garvie, senior associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology. “These biometric templates should also be destroyed if the charges are not filed or are dropped, or if the defendant is found not guilty.”
In at least one contract, Securus gave a jail system the option of using a “covert” enrollment method, extracting voice prints from people who are not informed about the process. Jail officials in Alachua County, Florida, confirmed to The Appeal that they were pursuing this type of voice print extraction option with Securus.
Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a national tech civil liberties organization, says EFF is concerned that such methods of voice printing people in jails could amount to illegal search and seizure.
Even when detainees know that their voices are being sampled, Mackey says, their assent to the request is not always consensual. Prisoners typically agree to voice printing because they must do so in order to speak with family and loved ones.
Mackey says that pushing incarcerated people to participate in the program is “exploiting what we humans all need: to communicate with people we care about and who care about us.”
Many attorneys were unaware of the surveillance program, and those who learned about it are unsure of how to get their clients’ voice print data expunged.
“This is the first I’m hearing of this,” says Paul Quinzi, a lawyer in Travis County. Quinzi regularly helps his Austin-area clients expunge their criminal records after charges are dismissed, petitioning various government agencies, including prosecutor’s offices, jails, and police departments, to delete their data (by delinking names from fingerprints, for instance).
But Quinzi says he didn’t know that voice prints were being extracted at the Travis County Jail, so he has never asked for the prints to be destroyed. Even if he did make that request, he says, “only the people who are notified are subject to the expunction order,” which may not include the holder of voice print data, Securus.
Stacy Scott, the elected public defender of Florida’s Eighth Circuit, also told The Appeal that her office has never been informed of Securus’s voice print technology, though the Alachua County Jail in her jurisdiction is rolling out the program.
The Fort Bend County sheriff’s office began collecting voice prints in its detention center around 2013, according to Capt. Quam. But public defenders there say they learned about the practice only a few months ago, says Roderick Glass, chief public defender of Fort Bend County.
“What often happens when there’s a new technology that comes out is defense attorneys are usually the last to know,” says Glass, who added that private attorneys may find out even later than public defenders do. Glass notes that to date this year his office has not had a client go to trial and receive a not-guilty verdict. If that happens in the future, he says, his public defenders will file motions to have their clients’ voice prints destroyed. But it is unclear how such requests would be handled.
“The biggest issue is, we can get that order signed, but if [the voice print is] held by a third party, a private company, can a sheriff’s office actually order a private company to destroy it?” says Glass, referring to Securus. “That’s something we’ll have to decide when we start filing motions to destroy.”
Neither Securus nor the Fort Bend sheriff’s office responded to follow-up questions about the legal steps necessary to ensure voice print deletion.
Many local elected officials are also in the dark about voice printing. Ken Cornell, an Alachua County commissioner, voted to approve a Securus software upgrade for the county jail in January but says he had no idea that the new agreement would enable voice printing until he read The Appeal and The Intercept’s reporting on the issue.
“That was basically one component of the upgrade. It wasn’t highlighted, I’m learning as we speak,” says Cornell, referring to Securus’s voice printing capability. “We’re still understanding how this info is being used, but from the law enforcement perspective, it’s helpful for keeping our residents safe.”
County jails typically receive funding from county boards or commissions, and in Texas the commissions are headed by county judges. The Appeal asked the Travis County judge Sarah Eckardt if she was aware that the local jail uses Securus’s voice print function. The judge replied by email that she was not.
Phone call evidence flagged and analyzed with voice recognition technology could be used by detectives and prosecutors against defendants. Pailes of the Fort Bend County sheriff’s office says his agency is now considering sending prosecutors jail-call recordings that Securus’s program has alerted may contain a suspect’s voice.
As an example, Pailes reviewed the day’s calls that Investigator Pro had flagged as “suspicious” for containing the voices of detainees not associated with the proper PINs. The program listed probability rates that the suspicious voices matched those of other detainees: 83%, 79%, 55%, and 45%. Pailes says when such calls are flagged as potentially containing a suspect’s voice, jail authorities should, when asked, share them with prosecutors.
Pailes acknowledges that defense attorneys could challenge such evidence because the match is only probable, not certain. But, he continues, the calls could be very valuable. “Most likely if someone is committing a crime, they’re going to do it under someone else’s P-number, not their own.”
If jail officials do start sending prosecutors the calls that Securus’s program has flagged as possibly containing a suspect’s voice, defense attorneys may seek out information to challenge the validity of the voice identification, says Glass, the Fort Bend chief public defender.
And jail officials’ attempted voice identifications could stretch beyond their own incarcerated populations. According to Securus’s contract documentation, the program allows investigators to use the voice prints of formerly incarcerated people to identify them by name whenever they are present on jail calls.
Securus is not the only prison telecom company that defense attorneys will need to contend with. Global Tel Link, another major corrections firm, has an application called Voice IQ, which is similar to Investigator Pro. A patent granted to GTL in 2013 presents a vision for voice printing that starts in penal institutions but stretches far beyond.
GTL’s patent talks of a “national voice database” of everyone in the U.S. who has a telephone account. This would enable the authorities to “track wanted criminals,” the patent says. It goes on to describe someone calling in a delivery order from “a local pizzeria” and their voice being recognized in the national database. Thanks to voice printing, the patent says, the police could then get the person’s address by calling the pizzeria to “inquire who placed that specific order.”
“It would not be surprising if prison technology companies seek to expand voice recognition into other markets,” says Bianca Tylek, director of the Corrections Accountability Project, which works to curb the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system.
“What’s frustrating right now is they can test out this technology on very vulnerable populations, like people in jails and prisons, because people tend to view them as not having individual rights,” Tylek says. “Today it’s this population, but tomorrow it’s another.”
Contact reporter George Joseph on the secure phone app Signal at 929-282-2471 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org with another protonmail account. Contact Debbie Nathan at email@example.com.