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Microsoft Invests in Digital Incarceration

The reality of Microsoft’s relationship with criminal justice is much more complex and driven by conflict between the company’s progressive public relations stance and the massive profit potential to be mined from supporting repressive police states worldwide. Thus far, and not surprisingly, the lucrative opportunities offered by the digital transformation of policing have won out in the company’s decision making.

Microsoft’s Public Safety and Justice Division provides a variety of products and services, mostly through independent partners. The primary business of this division is licensing software and renting storage and processing capacity on its Azure cloud infrastructure. In addition to this partner ecosystem, Microsoft has its own products, including surveillance and analytic systems marketed to police departments across the United States and around the world.

Microsoft’s flagship product line for correctional services is centered on the 360 platform. It was created in 2009 as part of a contract to update and integrate the computer system of the Illinois prison system. Microsoft worked with its partner Tribridge to build a searchable, web-based software solution called Offender 360. When the product was delivered, the governor of Illinois declared that his state would have “one of the most advanced criminal justice systems in the country.”

The 360 platform combines a variety of functions. The software provides a tracking history of a prisoner’s location throughout incarceration, their identifying features, religion, and aliases. Prisoners are categorized and classified according to security characteristics, criminal history, and behavioral tendencies.

The system also allows for custom queries and ad hoc searches for real time analysis. The constant and ever-growing body of data follows prisoners wherever their incarceration might take them, and beyond.

The 360 platform was expanded to additional correctional products. Youth 360 was developed for juvenile justice applications and can be linked to school and public health systems. The primary tool of this system is the Youth Assessment and Screening Instrument, which evaluates data to profile “crimogenic risks, needs, and strengths.” This tool is used for assessing probation risks, and many advocates for juvenile civil liberties have expressed concern that its algorithms exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline for at-risk youth.

Pretrial 360 also provides data and creates risk assessments for pretrial detainees under consideration for bond. Like most algorithm-based assessment systems, Pretrial 360 has been criticized for built-in bias against communities of color. There is currently no data available for Pretrial 360 recommendations, but similar systems have been shown in studies in Kentucky to favor white defendants over similarly situated Black defendants.

Beyond the 360 platform, Microsoft is expanding into the international digital policing market. In the United Kingdom, Microsoft is marketing its Domain Awareness System as a digital management solution for prisons. The system envisions prisons monitored with CCTV, drones, facial recognition and electronic tagging. Microsoft is also active in Africa, with partner Netopis, in marketing prison management software and criminal justice data collection products.

As Microsoft digital policing products come online at the state, local, and federal level in the U.S. and a variety of locations overseas, the conflict between the company’s social justice public relations rhetoric and its investment in the prison-­industrial- complex will become increasingly difficult to maintain within the same corporate culture. 


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