After Elisabeth Epps was booked in the Arapahoe County Detention Center to serve a 27-day sentence, she, like many other inmates, elected to set up a phone account with the jail so she could place calls while in lockup. The criminal-justice reform activist, who is known for bonding out low-level offenders whose bails are as low as $25, was serving a sentence of her own stemming from an incident in 2015 in which she was charged with obstructing police officers while they arrested an agitated man in Aurora.
Epps was aware that by enrolling in Arapahoe County jail’s phone system, all of her calls would be recorded and held by the sheriff’s department for up to one year, which is standard practice among jails and prisons. But she says she was alarmed when, on January 28, she was forced to say some phrases into a phone receiver, including scripts about the weather and the Super Bowl, before she was entered into the system and allowed to place a call.
Coincidentally, two days later, the investigative media outlets The Intercept and The Appeal co-published a lengthy piece detailing how jails and prisons across the country are using new technology to create databases of inmates’ “voice prints” — a biometric identifier like a fingerprint that can recognize someone's voice based on their unique vocal patterns. According to the story on The Intercept's website, the technology was developed with millions in defense grants for the military to identify terrorists on phone calls, among other uses.
Epps was granted work release during her sentence, meaning she could leave jail during the day. During one such outing, she read The Intercept article and posted it to Twitter, adding: “I’m so embarrassed, so mad at myself for complying…When they let me enroll, I felt I had to. You read a script of conversational phrases about Super Bowl, weather. I freaked out and have not touched phone since.”
She continued, “I literally talked to the 2B pod deputy in Arap cage about this 2 nights ago," later adding, "deputy called it the latest invasion by big brother.”
The Intercept and The Appeal claim that more than 200,000 inmates across the country have been voice-printed, oftentimes as a requirement to use phones in jails and without being briefed on what, exactly, voice prints are, what they’ll be used for, or how long the information will be accessible by law enforcement.
The technology is part of a new service — called Investigator Pro — offered by one of the largest jail and prison phone-system providers in the United States, Securus Technologies. The Intercept and The Appeal's investigation found voice-printing contracts with Securus in New York, Texas, Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona. The media outlets had not confirmed any in Colorado.
But after Epps’s tweets, Westword confirmed that Arapahoe County uses Securus Technologies' Investigator Pro and that all inmates at Arapahoe County jail who want to use the phones there must create a voice print.
Arapahoe County Detention Administration Bureau Chief Vince Line says that the county opted in to Investigator Pro the last time it renewed its contract with Securus, in April 2018.
Line says the primary reason the county uses the technology is to protect inmates from having their phone-system credits stolen by others who are in lockup.
"Prior to Investigator Pro coming along, the inmates would be given a PIN when they enrolled in the phone system,” Line explains. “Phone calls are a cost to the inmate, and so if those PIN numbers get out and are seen by someone else, it's pretty easy to end up with cases where you have PIN theft, or fraud related to other inmates using someone else's PIN number to access the phone system. We had quite a few cases of thefts of PIN numbers.
"Investigator Pro affords what I refer to as a dual authenticity of who the caller is,” he continues. “Now when [inmates] log in to the system, they have to use their PIN, and their voice is also detected to determine if this is the correct inmate who is using the phone system so that the wrong inmate doesn't get charged for the phone call."
Since Arapahoe County started using Investigator Pro, Line says he hasn’t heard any complaints from inmates about stolen credits.
The Intercept found that state prisons in New York were voice-printing people on the other end of inmate phone calls, as well. But Line says Arapahoe County is only voice-printing inmates, and that the information is not being shared with other law enforcement agencies. Securus adds that it also cannot be used as evidence in a trial.
There are other uses besides preventing PIN fraud for Investigator Pro, which Securus Technologies lauds, including the ability for jailers to quickly analyze outgoing calls to determine if multiple inmates are calling the same outside number, a possible indication of criminal conspiracy.
Civil-liberties watchdogs are concerned that the technology risks being abused, such as law enforcement using it to track calling activity of jail reform activists like Epps (who recently completed her sentence and was released on February 7).
Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, says he learned of voice-printing technology from the Intercept article and is concerned that it's being used in Colorado.
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"This is a new technology with civil-liberties implications,” he says. "Many new ways to invade civil liberties are debuted in prisons and jails, and then there's always the risk that it gets normalized there and starts spreading. Here you have a captive audience with few rights, fewer legal means to object, and authorities can try [new technologies] out often without giving proper notice or receiving informed consent, which seems to be what's going on."
Silverstein adds that he discussed the technology at the ACLU’s recent national staff conference. "It feels like an invasion of privacy," he says. "But it may be another example where our law hasn't caught up with the advances in technological ways to invade privacy."
The Denver County Sheriff’s Department says it does not use Investigator Pro or conduct voice printing. As for Arapahoe County, Bureau Chief Line says he is unsure how many inmates have voice prints, but that most inmates end up using the phone system.
Arapahoe County booked approximately 18,000 inmates in 2018.