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Prisons Nationwide are Collecting Inmates’ Biometric Voice Information

Posted by Joseph Tully | Feb 01, 2019


You may use biometric voice information for some of your online account authentications. You know the drill – repeat a phrase several times so the computer captures it and you can log into your accounts simply by stating your name or other information.

Across the country, prisons are collecting voice prints of inmates and building databases, and it is believed at least 200,000 inmates' voice prints have been collected to date. It's part of a new voice surveillance system that can monitor calls, but the system is ripe for abuse.

No Voice Recognition, No Phone Calls

In some prisons, inmates who do not want to cooperate with this biometric intrusion risk losing phone privileges. If they don't comply, they can't call anyone but their lawyer.

Most inmates are not informed as to the reason for giving their voice prints but are simply instructed to repeat phrases given to them in a script until the voice recognition process is completed. Once the voices are entered in the database, computer algorithms can identify the voices on any call.

In some states, including New York, voices of people inmates call frequently on the outside are also analyzed, allowing prison officials to know if there are people speaking to several inmates regularly. The call recipients are not informed that their voices have been captured and analyzed.

New York's Department of Corrections houses 50,000 inmates, and officials confirm 92 percent of inmates have had their voice prints captured.

How a Voice Print Works

Voice print technology can ascertain the unique features of each individual voice, such as tone. The computer model of the voice data becomes the voice print. The U.S. military originally developed this technology.

Today, prison officials argue that voice print technology is essential for security, as the technology allows for automatic flagging of any calls that differ between prison ID for the call and the voice print of the actual caller.

According to a Florida prison official, inmates often use each other's PIN numbers when making calls, and the reason for doing that is usually nefarious.

Inmates using such borrowed PINs may contact victims, witnesses or use another's ID to commit crimes. Sometimes, inmates use a stolen PIN to contact the PIN owners' family and threatening them for money. With voice print technology, officials know exactly who is making the call regardless of the PIN number. But isn't security always the justification for a substantial loss of liberty?

Retaining the Voice Prints After Release

Alarmingly, when an inmate is released, his voice print stays behind in the prison's database. That allows prison officials to monitor any calls a current inmate makes to a former prisoner. For “investigational purposes,” the prison can determine how many inmates are speaking to this former prisoner and how often someone speaks to this person.

That worries prison rights activists, who contend the technology could stop prison reform campaigns in their tracks. Those suspected of leading such campaigns could end up facing retribution, such as solitary confinement or being sent to another facility.

Requiring a Warrant

While the unknowing capture of an inmate's voice print is bad enough, there's no excuse for stealing the voice of a person to whom an inmate speaks. Those people include not only relatives and friends, but legal counsel. One Legal Aid attorney says the use of such technology on outside parties should require a warrant.

He notes that just because someone has a family member who has been convicted of a crime, that doesn't mean the caller has done anything wrong, and their information should not become part of any government investigations.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...