In EFF’s Catalog of Carceral Surveillance, we explore patents filed by or awarded to prison communication technology companies Securus and Global Tel*Link in the past five years. The dystopian technology the patents describe are exploitative and dehumanizing. And if the companies transformed their patents into real products, the technology would pose extreme threats to incarcerated people and their loved ones.
But importantly, patents often precede the actual development or deployment of a technology. Though applications may demonstrate an interest in advancing a particular technology, these intentions don’t always progress beyond the proposal, and many inventions that are described in patent applications don't wind up being built. What we can glean from a patent application is that the company is thinking about the technology and that it might be coming down the pipeline.
In 2019, Platinum Equity, the firm that has owned Securus Technologies since 2017, restructured the company, placing it under the parent company Aventiv. Aventiv claimed it would lead Securus through a transformation process that includes greater respect for human rights. According to Aventiv, many of patents filed prior to 2019 will remain just ideas, never to be built. Following the publication of our initial Catalog of Carceral Surveillance posts, Aventiv responded with the following statement: "We at Aventiv are committed to protecting the civil liberties of all those who use our products. As a technology provider, we continuously seek to improve and to create new solutions to keep our communities safe.”
Aventiv’s statement goes on to respond to EFF’s post describing a patent filed by Securus that envisions a system for monitoring online purchases made by incarcerated people and their families. The company wrote: “The patent is not currently in development as it was an idea versus a product we will pursue,” and added that to “ensure there is no additional misunderstanding, we will be abandoning this patent and reviewing all open patents to certify that they align with our transformation efforts.”
Aventiv stated, “The patent you reference is 10904297, which was filed in June 2019, prior to our company publicly announcing a multi-year transformation effort."
The company did not offer additional details regarding the other patents of theirs we spotlight, including those focused on drone detection, gaming services, and tablet advertisements.
The statement concluded: “Our organization is focused on better serving justice-involved people by making our products more accessible and affordable, investing in free educational and reentry programming, and taking more opportunities—just like this one—to listen to consumers. To ensure there is no additional misunderstanding, we will be abandoning this patent and reviewing all open patents to certify that they align with our transformation efforts."
GTL declined to comment for this series.
GTL and Securus were once among the greatest opponents of federal regulation of prison phone calls. They’ve claimed to have adjusted their positions. Both announced over the summer that they are supportive of reforms to create more accessible prison communications. Each began to offer inmates free phone calls and free tablets.
To better understand the potential (but not certain) futures of these companies, EFF created the Catalog of Carceral Surveillance to spotlight the patents that could pave the way toward chilling developments in surveillance.
In the coming months, EFF plans to follow up with Aventiv to hold them to their word and will continue to remind prison technology companies of their responsibilities to the families they serve.View the Catalog of Carceral Surveillance below. New posts will be added daily
- Monitoring the Online Purchases of Inmates' Friends and Family.
- Mobile Correctional Facility Robots
- Prison Gaming and AR/VR Services
- Voice Recognition and Surveillance
There are more federal facial recognition technology (FRT) systems than there are federal agencies using them, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. Its latest report on current and planned use of FRT by federal agencies reveals that, among the 24 agencies surveyed, there are 27 federal FRT systems. Just three agencies—the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and Justice—use 18 of these systems for, as they put it, domestic law enforcement and national security purposes.
But 27 current federal systems are not enough to satisfy these agencies. The DOJ, DHS, and Department of the Interior also accessed FRT systems “owned by 29 states and seven localities for law enforcement purposes.” Federal agencies further accessed eight commercial FRT systems, including four agencies that accessed the infamous Clearview AI. That’s all just current use. Across federal agencies, there are plans in the next two years to develop or purchase 13 more FRT systems, access two more local systems, and enter two more contracts with Clearview AI.
As EFF has pointed out again and again, government use of FRT is anathema to our fundamental freedoms. Law enforcement use of FRT disproportionately impacts people of color, turns us all into perpetual suspects, and increases the likelihood of false arrest. Law enforcement agencies have also used FRT to spy on protestors.
Clearview AI, a commercial facial surveillance entity used by many federal agencies, extracts the faceprints of billions of unsuspecting people, without their consent, and uses them to provide information to law enforcement and federal agencies. They are currently being sued in both Illinois state court and federal court for violating the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). Illinois' BIPA requires opt-in consent to obtain someone’s faceprint. Recently, an Illinois state judge allowed the state case to proceed, opening a path for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fight against Clearview AI’s business model, which trades in your privacy for their profit. You can read the opinion of the judge here, and find EFF’s two amicus briefs against Clearview AI here and here.
FRT in the hands of the government erodes the rights of the people. Even so, the federal government’s appetite for your face—through one of their 27 systems or commercial systems such as Clearview AI—is insatiable. Regulation is not sufficient here; the only effective solution to this pervasive problem is a ban on the federal use of FRT. Cities across the country from San Francisco, to Minneapolis, to Boston, have already passed strong local ordinances to do so.
Now we must go to Congress. EFF supports Senator Markey’s Facial Recognition and Biometrics Technology Moratorium Act, which would ban the federal government’s use of FRT and some other biometric technologies. Join our campaign and contact your members of Congress and tell them to support this ban. The government can’t get enough of your face. Tell them they can’t have it.
Tell Congress to Ban Federal Use of Face Recognition
You can find the GAO’s Report here.
The big-name social media companies have all done a rather atrocious job of moderating user speech on their platforms. However, much like Florida's similarly unconstitutional attempt to address the issue (S.B. 7072), Texas' recently enacted H.B. 20 would make the matter worse for Texans and everyone else.
Signed into law by Governor Abbott last week, the Texas law prohibits platforms with more than 50 million users nationwide from moderating user posts based on viewpoint or geographic location. However, as we stated in our friend-of-the-court brief in support of NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Associations lawsuit challenging Florida's law (NetChoice v. Moody), "Every court that has considered the issue, dating back to at least 2007, has rightfully found that private entities that operate online platforms for speech and that open those platforms for others to speak enjoy a First Amendment right to edit and curate that speech."
Inconsistent and opaque content moderation by online media services is a legitimate problem. It continues to result in the censorship of a range of important speech, often disproportionately impacting people who aren’t elected officials. That's why EFF joined with a cohort of allies in 2018 to draft the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation, offering one model for how platforms can begin voluntarily implementing content moderation practices grounded in a human rights framework. Under the proposed principles, platforms would:
- Publish the numbers of posts removed and accounts permanently or temporarily suspended due to violations of their content guidelines.
- Provide notice to each user whose content is taken down or account is suspended about the reason for the removal or suspension.
- Provide a meaningful opportunity for timely appeal of any content removal or account suspension.
H.B. 20 does attempt to mandate some of the transparency measures called for in the Santa Clara Principles. Although these legal mandates might be appropriate as part of a carefully crafted legislative scheme, H.B. 20 is not the result of a reasonable policy debate. Rather it is a retaliatory law aimed at violating the First Amendment rights of online services in a way that will ultimately harm all internet users.
We fully expect that once H.B. 20 is challenged, courts will draw from the wealth of legal precedent and find the law unconstitutional. Perhaps recognizing that H.B. 20 is imperiled for the same reasons as Florida’s law, the Lonestar State this week filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal of a federal court’s ruling that Florida’s law is unconstitutional.
Despite Texas and Florida’s laws being unconstitutional, the concerns regarding social media platforms' control on our public discourse is a critical policy issue. It is vitally important that platforms take action to provide transparency, accountability, and meaningful due process to all impacted speakers and ensure that the enforcement of their content guidelines is fair, unbiased, proportional, and respectful of human rights.
As the United States pulled its troops out of Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation, byproducts of the prolonged deployment took on new meaning and represented a new chapter of danger for the Afghan people. For two decades, the United States spearheaded the collection of information on the people of Afghanistan, both for commonplace bureaucratic reasons like payroll and employment data—and in massive databases of biometric material accessible through devices called HIIDE.
HIIDE, the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, are devices used to collect biometric data like fingerprints and iris scans and store that information on large accessible databases. Ostensibly built in order to track terrorists and potential terrorists, the program also was used to verify the identities of contractors and Afghans working with U.S. forces. The military reportedly had an early goal of getting 80% of the population of Afghanistan into the program. With the Taliban retaking control of the nation, reporting about the HIIDE program prompted fears that the equipment could be seized and used to identify and target vulnerable people.
Some sources, including those who spoke to the MIT Technology Review, claimed that the HIIDE devices offered only limited utility to any future regimes hoping to use them and that the data they access is stored remotely and therefore less of a concern. They did raise alarms, however, on the wide-reaching and detailed Afghan Personnel and Pay System (APPS), used to pay contractors and employees working for the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. This database contains detailed information on every member of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police—prompting renewed fears that this information could be used to find people who assisted the U.S. military or Afghan state-building, policing, and counter-insurgency measures.
There has always been concern and protest over how the U.S military used this information, but now that concern takes on new dimensions. This is, unfortunately, a side effect of the collection and retention of data on individuals. No matter how secure you think the data is—and no matter how much you trust the current government to use the information responsibly and benevolently—there is always a risk that either priorities and laws will change, or an entirely new regime will take over and inherit that data.
One of the most infamous examples was the massive trove of information collected and housed by Prussian and other German police and city governments in the early twentieth century. U.S. observers given tours of the Berlin police filing system were shocked to find dozens of rooms filled with files. In total, over 12 million records were kept containing personal and identifying information for people who had born, lived, or traveled through Berlin since the system began. Although Prussian police were known for political policing and brutal tactics, during the Weimar period between 1918 and 1933, police were lenient and even begrudgingly accepting of LGBTQ+ people at a time when most other countries severely criminalized people with same-sex desires and gender-nonconforming people.
All of this changed when the Nazis rose to power and seized control of not just the government and economy of a major industrialized nation, but also millions of police files containing detailed information about people, who they were, and where to find them.
The history of the world is filled with stories of information—collected responsibly or not, with intended uses that were benevolent or not—having long afterlives. The information governments collect today could fall into more malevolent hands tomorrow. You don't even need to go abroad in search of a government finding new nefarious uses for information collected on individuals for entirely different and benevolent purposes.
With the afterlives of biometric surveillance and data retention now re-threatening people in Afghanistan, we are now regrettably able to add this chapter to this history of the dangers of mass data collection. Better protections on information and its uses can only go so far. In many instances, the only way to ensure that people are not made vulnerable by the misuse of private information is to limit, wherever possible, how much of it is collected in the first place.
As part of our goal to expand the impact of our digital security guide, Surveillance Self-Defense (SSD), we recently translated the majority of its contents into Burmese. This repository of resources on circumventing surveillance across a variety of different platforms, devices, and threat models is now available in English, and in whole or in part in 11 other languages: Amharic, Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, Brazilian Portuguese, Burmese, Thai, and Urdu.
The last year has seen significant numbers of protests by the people of Myanmar against human and digital rights violations by the military, prompted by the recent military coup in the country. Fighting back against human rights violations shouldn’t require you to have a computer science degree, and so our SSD guides help explain, in clear language, how to protect yourself from digital surveillance and unpack key concepts that make doing so easier. These guides offer overviews and recommendations for digital security protection during protests, network circumvention, using VPNs and Tor, using Signal, social media safety, and so on.
We hope these resources will help those in Myanmar access reliable, up-to-date digital security guidance during a high-stress time, localized to the unique considerations in Myanmar. In addition to this project, we also plan to translate our new mobile phone privacy guide into multiple languages, including Turkish, Russian, and Spanish. We’d like to thank the National Democratic Institute for providing funds for these translations, and Localization Lab for their efforts in completing them.