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Prisons Are Quietly Building Databases of Incarcerated People’s Voice Prints (theintercept.com)
199 points by jbegley 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

First of all, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in inmate/confinee calls. The system they use plays a message to that effect at the beginning of the call. Jail/prison/brig phone calls are routinely recorded, and prosecutors listen to those phone calls. That's why defense attorneys will come see you in person. It's also why every once in a while you'll get an admission or other indications of guilt from someone who doesn't listen to those warnings.


Second, an anecdote. The system they use in my jurisdiction uses phone cards. We once had a group of confinees switch phone cards to make it difficult to trace who was speaking (and at the very least introduce reasonable doubt). I listened to dozens of hours of audio in one case, just hoping for the caller to identify himself (since the advent of caller ID, it seems a lot of people just say "Hey"). Voice printing would have been very helpful here.

I think this is a bit different... This is clearly asking the inmates to utter phrases with the intent of training a model, with the threat of revoking the ability to contact loved ones if you don't comply. This isn't being constructed from the existing phone calls, but specifically targeted action to collect clean training data.

The article says the voice prints are used in "a new voice surveillance system," specifically that "algorithms then draw on these databases to identify the voices taking part in a call."

I read the other posters concerns about Fourth Amendment protections as responding to the surveillance use, not to the collection. My post was in response to my general read of those concerns.

It seems your objection is primarily to the collection of the voice print itself. Why do you feel like that's different from collecting finger prints?

>It seems your objection is primarily to the collection of the voice print itself. Why do you feel like that's different from collecting finger prints?

Fingerprints are harder to use in electronic mass surveillance.

Databases are easy to combine, the only barrier is often just a legal one (which is a joke for national security). So I'd like governments to collect as little of that data as possible.

When I read your comment, it gave me the impression that these voice prints were being collected during normal telephone use by the inmates. After reading the article, this wasn't the case, so I left my comment in an attempt to help other readers avoid my misunderstanding.

“You have the right to remain silent”

See, initially I thought this was going to be a debate about "well this is legal, but is it just?"

+1 to you, sir. Having inmates train the voice recognition is (in my opinion) compelling an admission.

The issue this article is raising is that of privacy outside the prison system, not in. Not only are these people (and their friends) being tracked after they have been released, but they're also threatened with loss of a privilege they've always had when they were still inmates.

And if we could trust the prison system to destroy these voice prints after the incarcerated person was released this wouldn't be such a big issue.

But we can't, and they're not, so what's your point?

You know or probably should know that all conversations between prisoners and their attorneys are privileged. If you're saying that you've illegally recorded and listened to those conversations, you belong in a cage with them.

100% totally and completely false. If a client knowingly discloses or includes prison staff on the call that’s a waiver. And most calls from prison make this clear. Now - giving false legal advice may land you in a cage - so please don’t pretend to be a lawyer if you are not.

I never claimed to be a lawyer because I understand and respect the legal system of the United States. You however do not, and I hope you remember the next time you are violating attorney-client privilege that you are not one of the good guys and you protect no one.

You do not have attorney client privilege if you broadcast your conversation knowingly to others. This can either end up as a waiver (client side) or an ethical violation (attorney side).

"you are not one of the good guys and you protect no one."

Huh? Interesting. I've been a member of the civil rights movements almost certainly longer than you (card carrying member). Pointing out obvious falsehoods does not make anyone a "bad guy" - and the idea that you are the only "good guy" out there is pathetic. Save the personal attacks.

> We once had a group of confinees switch phone cards to make it difficult to trace who was speaking

Does the acknowledgement of recording somehow confer a burden on the confinee to be sure you are able to definitively identify them?

History will not look kindly on you or your work destroying the lives of vulnerable people.

People can always supply reasons for why they need to build dystopias.

I wonder if all companies offering free voice calls like Facebook, Google are collecting voice prints without user consent. I wonder if they offer other parties a service where input is a recording, output is identified person.

Read the ToS when signing up to those things. They're collecting everything and according to the law, blindly clicking "I agree" counts as consent.

> blindly clicking "I agree" counts as consent

Not in the EU, where the idea of "informed consent" exists within law.

Maybe the US needs better data protection laws, too.

Scratch that 'maybe'.

Yeah, and on top of that I've agreed to let them use my data for training/research purposes, so definitely happening there.

And even from a moral standpoint you gave your word that these things were okay to do with your information, and you can revoke your permission at any point.

Collecting is one thing, offering others voice base identification is another. GDPR changed the landscape so I don't have to fear that a single consent is a blanket one. It would be good to find out how the FAANG are using voice prints.

Unless you're a European citizen interacting with a European company GDPR changed nothing, they can show you a different ToS and play entirely in your court system where GDPR is meaningless.

Isn't it enough that Google et al conducts business in EU and have a representation here?

No, it isn't. GDPR only affects EU citizens living in the EU. It's possible for companies to maintain entirely different practices for their users in the EU verses out of the EU.

Google et al are moving EU citizens' data ownership to EU subsidiaries to comply with GDPR.


In this vein consider the robo and spam calls you receive.

FWIW, customer service of your average corporation is likely to already have voice fingerprinting in place.

I asked my mobile provider (Rogers) if they had any alternatives to storing my birth date as my account verification method and they offered to enrol me in their voice print program. I declined.

Well, the main identification method should have been calling from their own phone (from their own system), but who knows why they're not doing that.

Why not just lie and give them a fake birthday?

It's not like you can't give them false information.

Someone knowing your birthdate isn't really a big deal anyway

Social Security, dark web crackers, and crappy online forgotten passwords websites want to know your location. I jest. But seriously, DOB is extremely valuable, which is why I never use my real one online except for government stuff like that.

To the poster it sounded like he didn't want to hand that info over. I don't know the reason, I was just providing a fairly simple solution.

Also dob is frequently used as a verification. So it is kind of a big deal.

Maybe that's the point. It's not a very secure method of verification, so it is sensible to want something better, like an ad hoc secret phrase.

probably because it's cross referenced with your credit file, which they check when starting any post-paid plan.

In Dutch the standard recording says "this conversation can be recorded for training purposes" (to train new people, presumably). This just puts that in an entirely new light... cough AI cough

My voice fingerprint would be interesting because if it is one of those terrible voice prompt systems I am aggressively swearing at it, combined with extremely calm and pleasant tone with an actual person.

There are a couple of systems I've said "no your fucking menu options didn't change, I want to talk to a fucking human being" and was instantly connected. My thought was, "wait that worked?"

Some automated systems are supposed to detect irate tone and expedite connection to a human. I’ve tried triggering this a few times but never had any luck.

Interesting, I honestly will swear up a storm as soon as I hear their crappy automated system. Then be extremely nice to the actual person. And rate them afterwards on the survey very highly. A few times I've actually gone out of my way to ask for their manager to tell them how great the CSR was.

Somewhere my customer records at some company must say: "this guy really hates voice prompts, but is also very pleasant and amenable to working through a problem with patience"

Can you provide references to back this up? Is it opt-in ?

Not a reference per se, but I've noticed that several companies are now explicit that they're doing this. Chase's standard "This call may be monitored or recorded" has morphed into something like "This call may be monitored or recorded, and used for identification purposes", and Schwab has you repeat the phrase "At Schwab, my voice is my password" before they let you talk to a rep.

>...such as “multiple inmates speaking to one person on the outside on a reoccurring basis.”

This sounds like a niche use-case scenario: Inmates that speak to the press.

Kingpins in prison yet still running their empire.

I would think the kingpin would be outside of prison for that scenario, yeah? =]

I believe he means literally people in prison but with enough power and influence to continue to manage operations from within.

Aye, the statement was many on the inside to one on the outside, yeah? =] For the "kingpin" scenario, it would be many on the outside to one on the inside, right?

(Admittedly, I may be misunderstanding, which is why I'm asking.)

Here is one example but the reply is also correct.


I'm probably misunderstanding but that would be many on the outside speaking to one on the inside, yeah?

The bigger threat that WW3 or Global Warming is pervasive monitoring. Whoever survives all the other disasters can be completely controlled by whoever has the ability to monitor everything (and then kill anybody who acts or speaks against their interest. There is no such thing as resistance when your ability to resist is detected and monitored.

Currently, you're downvoted to near the bottom, while the top comment is defending this violation of dignity.

What's going on here; are we that out of touch with this community's values?

I'm starting to think the wider community has no idea how bad the possible outcomes of mass surveillance are.

Lucky for them, they have nothing to hide so don't need to worry! /s

Maybe they are downvoting because the apocalypse would have destroyed the physical infrastructure needed for such surveillance? It's sort of dystopia or the other; you can't have both!

Well, if that is their reason for downvoting then they really haven't thought it through. Pervasive monitoring is pervasive in large part because modern monitoring sensors are produced by the billions and are incredibly tiny (I'm talking about custom military stuff - not "spy-warehouse" stuff.) These are distributed systems and even today they spread their data all over the world to many huge secret underground bunkers (I know NSA guys who've describe these to me.) So even today there is a lot more monitoring than people realize. And this is analogous to the old nuclear first strike logic - if somebody strikes first then they have won. Once you get full control, your monitoring can't be fought.

This is interesting. I could see this being used for a sort of Shazam of anonymized voice data.

You have access to anonymous voice data (from service providers, messaging services etc.), but you can't connect that data to an individual without alienating their rights. Something like this could be used to filter that data for specific voice prints if you have a warrant.

Tinfoil hat take: It won't be long until voice prints are collected and shared for the majority of the population and connected to individuals via ad networks. It would be relatively simple for somewhere like Starbucks to install microphones, cancel out the in-store music, and keyword conversations for advertising purposes. The time for powerful privacy legislation is now.

And if your shoddy tech matches the wrong person and the judge and jury don't understand the broken tech and tortured statistical model, there's no problem because everyone in the database is already a known criminal who deserves to be punished.

Yes. To be clear I think this is a terrible idea, but the appeal of the power this could wield as an investigative tool will likely outweigh all arguments against it.

You know, there are illegal cell phones in prisons. If the prison folks have the ability to determine whose voice is speaking, then they can related an outgoing cell signal at the prison to a particular incarcerated person.

It would be like a wire-tap without a warrant. Do they need a warrant for someone already in prison?

It is going to be funny/ironic when the "Social Credit" system in China has voice-fingerprints of nearly every person under surveillance, so that words heard by any listening device would be admissible to analysis. They could then detect someone saying things of folks in power, both in adherence to political norms, and also in detection of fraud.

Thought-crimes, coming soon.

This is disturbing. I'm no lawyer or legal expert, but shouldn't this be contested on 4th Amendement (unreasonable search and seizure) grounds?

Incarcerated people are generally treated as not having fourth amendment rights - everything in that context is considered not unreasonable.

As somebody from Germany, that sounds all kinds of horrible. Is this actually codified in law or just something that's practiced without anybody stopping it?

I always thought these amendment rights are one of the most important pillars of what makes the US such an "amazing free democracy"? How can US Americans simply be deprived of those rights, doesn't that create a kind of "two-class" situation where some people are "more equal" than others?

It's in especially stark contrast to how Germany applies its version of a constitution, the Grundgesetz. Afaik most of them apply to everybody in Germany, even non-Germans who are just residing in Germany.

Not saying Germany always applies this perfectly but denying somebody their Grundrechte is, for obvious historical reasons, usually a very big deal in Germany resulting in a lot of press attention and public outrage.

American criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform. It's built around punishment and not rehabilitation making it wildly ineffective. It's totally inhumane. You take a bunch of people who don't know how to live in a society, then torture them instead of teaching them how, in a room full of other such people. Then they get out and shockingly over 76.6% of them do it again within 5 years as compared to the Norwegian system where people are treated like human beings and only 20% re-offend within 5 years [1]

[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/why-norways-prison-system-is...

I agree with you to a large extent about the US prison system because it is certainly flawed. However I get so tired of these blanket comparisons between two countries that have almost nothing in common.

There are a lot of Scandinavian transplants in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. Perhaps you could compare Norway to just those three states, or just the white Lutherans in them, if those demographics data are available.

But the American prison system is wholly designed to punish certain people almost exclusively. There is a reason it is deemed the "new Jim Crow."

> Is this actually codified in law or just something that's practiced without anybody stopping it?

> I always thought these amendment rights are one of the most important pillars of what makes the US such an "amazing free democracy"?

You say this like the net political direction in the US is standing up for people's rights. Each political party does gather support with rhetoric about defending their constituents. But actually implementing those changes would upset some entrenched interest, so they then settle for attacking their political enemies. Then the media and the courts go to work justifying it.

The Bill of Rights itself was only meant to be a reference and legal backstop rather than a enumeration, yet even those test cases are horribly failing. For every ideal it references, the practicality is that said right been effectively nullified in every day life - it's technically possible for you to follow a narrow course of action that would preserve your right, but wholly impractical.

IMHO this came about because the desire of being able to choose is deeply ingrained in USian culture, but judging whether a choice is fallacious is not. So rather than viewing the concept of rights as qualitative assessments of actual behavior, rights are interpreted as a fundamental axiomatic base that complexity layers over. Witness how commonly it's said "A person gives up their right to X when they Y".

in Belgium trying to escape is not a crime in itself because fighting for freedom is seen as a natural behavior of human nature.


I'm not an expert, but I believe it is the result of the structure of the law itself.

The American constitution does not grant any rights to the people, because our rights result from the nature of human existence and logically precede any government authority. The law recognizes rights, not grant them--they are "inalienable". Without rights, we wouldn't have the authority to form a constitution in the first place--by what right would we enter into such an agreement? Instead, the American constitution is designed to constrain the government by enumerating a limited set of government powers and no others. The Bill of Rights amendments do not grant any rights, they simply further restrict government power--just look at their wording: "Congress shall make no law...".

The fourth amendment is a limit on government power, not a grant of rights: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..." The amendment doesn't say "We grant the people the right to be free from unreasonable searches", it says people already have this right and the government must not violate it. Convicted criminals have violated the rights of others, and so they lose their own rights. Since they don't have rights, no violation is possible.

This is a much stronger type of individual protection than any other body of law. If the government does something you don't like, the burden is on the government to show it has the authority to do that thing. It doesn't need special case applications for non-citizens, because the rights of every individual person on American soil precede the law itself. And there is an open question about the degree to which they apply globally to non-citizens--every individual has the right to life, liberty, and property, and the government can't just go seize it (except under a declaration of war).

> This is a much stronger type of individual protection than any other body of law.

In theory, but apparently not in practice? Because the practice seems to work out like this: You are protected from government overreach until you are not anymore, by, for example, being a convicted criminal or maybe even a "terrorist".

That criminal lost his protections, he's now suddenly something like a de-facto "lesser citizen".

Now you can argue he's to blame for that and thus it's totally okay. But at the same time, it shows that the US approach does not actually protect the individual that well, because those protections seem to be rather easy to be undermined, as in the end, it will always be the government that defines and decides who should be considered a criminal/unworthy of those protections?

The above scenario would be absolutely unthinkable in Germany. If the German government would attempt something like that, it would run into very clear boundaries set by the Grundgesetz, which also guarantees all the rights from the UDHR [0] and you can't simply deny somebody their human rights, they are after all still human, regardless of what crimes they committed.

Sure, the German government also regularly tries to find ways around that, but there is a deep understanding among the German society that a lot of "rights" and "protections" always apply naturally, without exceptions, because exceptions would hollow out their whole purpose of being "undeniable human rights" in the first place. Denying people these rights would be the equivalent of declaring them "not human anymore".

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Germany#Law

The goal of the justice system in the USA is punitive retribution, not lowering crime rates or rehabilitation.

You get deprived of those rights by being convicted of a crime by a jury of your peers. That's the whole 'due process' clause in the constitution.

Sure, it just doesn't work, and for political reasons, nobody wants to put their neck out to actually fix it. I'm no fan of the Donald, and credit where due, he's passed the first meaningful criminal justice reform in years. The joke of course being that's where he sees himself after his term so he should make it as cushy as possible ;)

Activist judges have gutted the 4th Amendment over the decades.

I don't think incarcerated people are afforded that right.

Their rights are limited, yes, but what about the person on the other end of the call? I feel this is a gross violation of the 4th amendment rights of anyone who receives calls from an inmate subject to this program.

The communication services are predatory. Anecdotally, using a cell phone or cordless phone subjects you to having your call terminated due to '3rd party calls are not allowed'. When contacting customer service they pointed me to FAQ where it said cordless/cell phones should not be used and re-queued me without listening to my complaint. The rate given when pre-purchasing funds was $3 plus applicable fees/taxes for a 15 minute call. Except the jail limits calls to 10 minutes. The system is set up to make the cost ambiguous. I've had the service disconnect me within moments of connection and they could care less. I've reverted to writing post cards (letters are banned too, seems convenient for their bottom line). Family members of those incarcerated are preyed on by these monopolies deemed ok because 'its jail'.

You aren't likely to see any 4th amendment cases brought here because even when they do investigate crimes with info from prison calls they can easily use parallel construction to build their case on something that doesn't fall under the 4th.

Also because any expectation of privacy you have after hearing "This call may be recorded" is per se unreasonable, so the Fourth Amendment has no applicability here.

Sure but once they start moving into the pen register side of things to connect the dots between the folks on the other side of a prison phone call and the second level of connections they create you start to get into some gray-er areas. It becomes easier to dig through a trash can to find cause for a warrant than to use the call + pen register data.

It is, but what is anyone going to do about it?

Good point. But the people on the other end of the calls - whose data is also being collected - are afforded that right.

You have no reasonable expectation of privacy when calling a prison.

No idea why you are being downvoted. Every prison have a disclaimer when you call in or out that all calls are recorded.

We should consider changing/limiting that.

Why prisons specifically? Perhaps you should have no reasonable expectation of privacy when calling people in ANY building, then?

Some prisons are private, others are public. What about a prison makes this determination easy?

The purpose of a prison is to hold those who have lost their rights because they have violated the rights of others. To fulfill their purpose, they must maintain a high level of security, both to prevent escape and to prevent further harm to the public. Pervasive and invasive surveillance of the prison population and facilities is a necessary consequence of their legitimate purpose.

Private vs public has no implications here. Both house people who broke laws. You aren't being voice printed in your home by the American prison system be it public or private because you aren't in the American Prison system.

I'm not really following your logic here...

Many jails house people who have broken no law, or who will subsequently be acquitted.

Or, in your eyes, "collateral damage"...

Because it’s a prison. Voice monitoring is disclosed when calling from a prison. Public or private makes no difference.

We need a public database of voice prints of political figures. Not hard; they talk in public a lot.

Political figures have no expectation of privacy, after all.

What's the point of having this, other than to getting petty revenge at "The Man"? It's not like you control a surveillance system that could use those voiceprints.

You could make a neural network that categorised those who are more likely to be criminals based on this data.

Big if, but if it was accurate to say 95% would it be moral?

Strange times in which we live.

I expect it would just categorize all younger men with African American accents and a gradeschool vocabulary as criminals. 37.1% of 20-to 34-year old black men without a high school diploma or equivalent are currently incarcerated.


Woah 37% is terrible, good point about the racism it would no doubt match against...

My real question is as we get better AI systems and more accurate ones should we use them to make decisions that can affect people in profound ways.

Seems that maybe this is not the right place to discuss something as open ended and off topic as this!

Why do you expect someone's voice to give clues as to wether or not s/he's a criminal?

More likely than not, the model would simply learn to detect minority accents and further help institutional discrimination against minorities (which are already significantly more likely to be sentenced to prison, etc).

Folks like to think of 1984 as disturbingly prescient, but I think of Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle often these days. The plot involves the use of a voiceprint (developed by imprisoned scientists) to identify the speaker in a bugged phone call. Wouldn't Stalin have loved our technologies of surveillance?

Well they have to do it quietly or they will mess up the recording :-D

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