According to a recent news report, the state of Florida has implemented artificial intelligence (AI) technology to monitor and transcribe phone conversations of over 80,000 inmates. The Florida Department of Corrections has paid $2.5 million to Leo Technologies, a California-based company, to use its surveillance program called Verus starting in August.
Verus scans both incoming and outgoing calls, including those made by friends and family members of the inmates. It performs automatic searches for specific keywords selected by corrections officials and employees of Leo Technologies. By utilizing speech-to-text technology powered by Amazon, Verus transcribes the content of conversations that contain these keywords.
Under the contract with Leo Technologies that will last until June 30 next year, prisons can record and scan up to 50 million minutes of conversations. However, communications with lawyers, doctors, and spiritual advisors are exempt from tracking.
The primary purpose of this AI surveillance program is to provide corrections officials with “near real-time” notifications about past or potential criminal events. The collected content is shared with local, state, and federal authorities as well as prosecutors.
For decades, correctional institutions relied on staff members listening to phone calls they suspected might involve criminal activity. In recent years though, several states have turned to AI technology for monitoring these conversations. Officials claim that using such technology has helped deter violent crime and drug smuggling while also preventing suicides within prisons.
However, concerns have been raised regarding how law enforcement officials utilize this program. News reports have revealed instances where Verus was programmed to record conversations containing words like “abogado” and “abogada,” which mean lawyer in Spanish. In Alabama, the technology searched for keywords that could potentially help a sheriff defend against lawsuits related to prison security and sanitation.
In Suffolk County, New York, Verus flagged and transcribed a conversation where an incarcerated man informed his father about a COVID-19 outbreak allegedly being covered up by prison officials. This conversation was then shared with correctional officers and Leo Technologies employees.
In Florida’s contract, guards are listed as the primary point of contact with Leo Technologies. The company’s employees work alongside state employees to monitor prisons around the clock. Although company employees have access to prison communications, they are obligated by the contract to protect the information.
When approached for comment, Leo Technologies declined to respond. The Florida Department of Corrections stated that its commitment to public safety includes ensuring the well-being of staff and inmates in custody. However, specific details about how the technology is used and how many minutes of conversations have been recorded remain undisclosed due to a state law exempting surveillance techniques from public record disclosure.
A launch on Leo Technology’s website provides insight into Verus’ extensive monitoring capabilities within prisons. Georgia began using Verus in March 2020, and by April of the following year, over 7.5 million calls had been monitored, resulting in actionable evidence of criminal activity provided on 1,612 calls. Criminal activity was identified both inside and outside prisons.
Scott Kernan, CEO of Leo Technologies, has highlighted how his company’s technology helps prevent gang-related crimes by providing intelligence gathered from inmates’ phones.
Denise Rock, CEO and founder of Florida Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to improving incarcerated individuals’ lives expressed concern over how Verus has been used in other states. She argues that triggering a call transcript merely based on mentioning Spanish words for lawyer is unnecessary and believes transparency regarding which words trigger the technology is crucial. Rock also questions whether funds allocated for this AI surveillance program could be better utilized for rehabilitation purposes within prisons rather than benefiting private corporations.
As AI technology continues to be implemented in correctional facilities across various states, it raises important questions about privacy concerns and potential misuse by law enforcement authorities.
According to Tampa Bay TimesFlorida’s use of artificial intelligence to monitor and transcribe phone conversations in prisons has sparked debates about privacy, transparency, and the allocation of resources within the criminal justice system.