Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.
A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.
In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“(The) sheriff believes (the calls) will help him fend off pending liability via civil action from inmates and activists,” Sexton said. Verus transcribes phone calls and finds certain keywords discussing issues like COVID-19 outbreaks or other complaints about jail conditions.
Prisoners, however, said the tool was used to catch crime. In one case, it allegedly found one inmate illegally collecting unemployment benefits. But privacy advocates aren’t impressed. “The ability to surveil and listen at scale in this rapid way – it is incredibly scary and chilling,” said Julie Mao, deputy director at Just Futures Law, an immigration legal group.