A Los Angeles-based company has been selling to jails and prison systems phone-monitoring technology that searches for keywords, touting it as a way to discover COVID-19 infections early.
LEO Technologies developed the Verus system, which has already been deployed in at least 26 facilities in 11 states, including the Georgia prison system, at least seven Alabama county jails, and at least one facility in California. Some use LEO for non-COVID-19-related purposes.
The prisons implement Verus by asking their prison phone service provider to share call data with LEO, which routes the data though Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-computing division of Amazon. AWS sends LEO transcripts and the transcripts are read for keywords such as “coughing,” “sick,” “sneezing” or “COVID-19” by LEO staff. Could anything go wrong?
“Obviously, people talking about COVID-19 on the phone does not necessarily mean they are infected with COVID-19. The whole world is talking about the virus right now,” said Shilpi Agarwal, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It’s not at all clear that any of the monitoring and analysis would be accurate; we know that voice recognition technology is deeply biased. Moreover, we also know that this kind of recording technology has been misused in the past to financially exploit inmates and to spy on their conversations with attorneys.”
LEO Technologies CEO Scott Kernan is a former California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation secretary who sits on the board of GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the world. LEO Technologies is funded by Elliott Broidy, a former national deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee whose office was raided by the FBI in 2018 in conjunction with an investigation of money laundering and influence peddling. In 2009, Broidy pleaded guilty to New York felony bribery charges, admitting to providing payments to staffers in the state’s comptroller’s office.
Kernan admits Verus is not subject to any outside auditing for accuracy and there is no “hard and fast rule” about who handles prisoners’ call data and for how long. He said Verus has already transcribed over 84 million minutes of calls at a cost of 6 to 8 cents a minute.
But who is going to pay those 6 to 8 cents per minute? It will not be the prisons and jails, and LEO certainly is not going to provide the service for free. That leaves prisoners--or rather their families—who will be stuck with a bill just to be able to spend a few minutes on the line with their loved ones.
“While this may be well intentioned, it’s absurd to rely on eavesdropping on prisoners’ phone calls to identify those who may have COVID-19,” said David Fathi, director of the ALCU’s National Prison Project. “If prisons and jails want sick prisoners to self-identify, they should stop charging them for medical care, and eliminate the many other barriers and disincentives to seeking care that currently exist.”
“To be clear, the way we can actually protect folks from COVID-19 is to decarcerate the prisons and jails,” said Agarwal.
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