Data collection practices of voice and facial biometrics companies criticized
A pair of biometrics providers are drawing criticism for their data collection practices, and the secrecy with which they are carrying them out. Facial recognition company Suspect Technologies attempted to deploy its technology publicly and gain access to the Massachusetts driver’s license image database last year, according to Motherboard, and Florida’s WUFT News reports that voice biometrics provider Securus Technologies, which provides technology to dozens of Florida counties for use in correctional facilities, directs government clients to coordinate their responses to media inquiries with its public relations office.
An investigation by Fresh Take Florida obtained copies of contracts with Securus from 22 counties, though another declined to share any information about the relationship, saying disclosure would reveal proprietary information belonging to the company. Securus provides voice monitoring software Investigator Pro, which inmates at many Florida correctional facilities must consent to using for full phone privileges. The report asks what happens to the data in cases where defendants are acquitted, or their charges are dropped, as well as about the data of innocent civilians recorded in the calls, and what restrictions, if any, are placed on the use and sharing of the data.
Securus VP of Corporate Affairs Joanna Acocella said in a statement that Investigator Pro has prevented “serious criminal activity, including violence within prisons, and harassment of witnesses and victims of domestic violence.”
According to its contract with Alachua County, Securus “uses continuous voice identification technology to determine what inmate(s) are speaking on the call, detect certain three-way call violations and help investigators find correlations between calls that might otherwise go undetected.” It was used recently to catch an inmate using other inmates’ PINs to make phone calls, and has been used to support criminal charges in at least two other cases in the county.
A lack of detailed information from the company or its customers about data storage and retention practices has raised concerns among privacy advocates.
“Even if they claim that it’s being stored separately and that the data that they’re storing is not itself personally identifiable, the whole point and purpose of creating that digital identifier is to subsequently identify you,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey. “There’s no backend protection or limit on how long they get to keep this personally identifiable information about you. They’re just sort of collecting up all of this data and keeping it in perpetuity.”
The Mark Cuban-backed Suspect Technologies repeatedly asked Plymouth Police Department Chief Michael Botieri to deploy its technology to help improve its algorithm.
Motherboard was given emails between Botieri and Suspect Technologies Co-founder Jacob Sniff by Kade Crockford, the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Program’s director.
“They reveal that self interested technology vendors are working behind the scenes to push unreliable, invasive surveillance tools on unsuspecting communities, entirely in the dark,” Crockford says.
The company was pitching its recognition capabilities, along with features to search for people based on gender, ethnicity, and emotion recognition. In addition to access to the driver’s license database, the company sought to deploy its real-time facial recognition technology in building lobbies and public surveillance cameras. Sniff noted privacy concerns in the emails, but argued that the technology could save lives.
He wrote to former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis in April, 2018: “Ed, you mentioned that if we did the lobby idea in Boston, that they would go absolutely nuts and it would be a privacy disaster. Our discussion last week was that police departments are supposed to be welcoming and this would ultimately deter people from showing up.”
The emails suggest that police officials indicated they may be able to provide the company with access to the state’s RMV database.
“One thing our company wants to do is make unbiased recognition, so if we can have a larger training set to train and test on, it allows us to build better, unbiased recognition technologies,” Sniff told Motherboard.
An RMV representative told Motherboard the agency does not provide access to images or its own facial recognition technology, used to catch people applying for multiple licenses, to third parties.
The matter appears to have closed, at least for now, when Botieri said in a June 2018 email that funds are not budgeted for the system.