This post is part of our series “The Prison Surveillance Catalog: Exploring the Future of Incarceration Technology.You can read more about the role of patents in our article “The catalog of prison surveillance: patents are not (yet) products”.
Imagine that you have been arrested and are sitting in a county jail. You must arrange for bail, an attorney, and a sitter for your children or pets. Maybe you need someone to deliver your prescription or you need to talk to your AA sponsor. On top of that, you’re traumatized by the invasive booking process and scared of what might happen to you, all too aware that many people end up being injured or killed while awaiting trial.
An agent gives you a digital tablet and assures you that you can use it to communicate in order to settle your affairs. It’s a flicker of a lifesaver…but then you try to use the device.
A pop-up window opens on the tablet screen and you are forced to watch an advertisement for a sleazy surety company before you are allowed to access the video call app. When your family member picks up, you both have to watch another commercial. When you finally get to talk, you and your relative have the logos of a local law firm hovering over your shoulder like the worst Zoom background ever. Throughout the call, your conversation is interrupted by periodic video advertisements that you must watch to keep the line open. There’s also an ubiquitous scrolling text ad and another ad that bounces around the screen to try and get your attention.
Suddenly, the call drops, the tablet freezes, and an alert flashes on the screen: your privileges have been revoked because an algorithm has determined that someone in the video flashed a gang sign. It must have been a mistake, but the message says you need to go through the appeal process to get your account reinstated.
This gruesome but fictional storyline is based on a very real patent titled “Advertisements in controlled environment communication systems using tablet computers“, which was granted to prison communications provider Securus in 2016. The patent describes a system that would, among other things, display contextual advertisements during video calls that would be based on the “characteristics” of the callers and the interests of the advertiser. . .
It is important to note that patents themselves are not products or even an indication of a company’s plans. These are ideas that companies have developed and want to get a business lock before a competitor does. Companies can claim an invention by patenting it, without ever building the system they describe.
Still, the fact that companies are devoting resources to developing these ideas should serve as a harbinger of what may be on the horizon.
We contacted Securus about this patent. A spokesperson replied by email: “Securus values its intellectual property portfolio, although we may not currently practice this patent, we are always looking to provide ways to reduce communication costs while enabling more contact between prisoners and their friends and families. ”
Although Securus filed this patent in 2014, which may seem like a long time ago, it is important to consider this patent in the context of the long and slow efforts to reform the costs of public telephones in prisons. For years, detention centers and telecommunications providers have defrauded imprisoned people and their families out of exorbitant phone rates…$5.74 for a 15 minute call—while some detention facilities have demanded that phone providers pay them bribes called “site committees.”
With some of these practices coming to an end, an ad-based model could be a way to replace lost profits. Securus itself now supports price caps and switching to a subscription-based model. Although Securus did not mention advertising in this context, we have seen advertising applied to streaming subscription models and other subscription models. And the patent certainly provides a roadmap for how Securus could integrate advertising into its communications systems.
Whatever Securus’ intentions for filing the patent, the language used in it invites prison and prison officials to consider inmates as a source of income, even if they are indigent.
“This situation may arise in a law enforcement context when an arrested person, prisoner or other detainee, who is being held in a holding cell, jail, jail or other law enforcement facility law, does not have a trust account, calling account, prepaid account, or other means of paying for telephone calls,” writes Securus in the introduction to its patent. “The inmate is then unable to initiate calls, but generally wants to make phone calls. This results in a loss of revenue for the law enforcement establishment. Depending on the nature of the law enforcement establishment, the inmate may be offered free calls. For example, a recently arrested person may be able to make free phone calls in an attempt to obtain legal representation or bail. These free calls also represent a loss of revenue for law enforcement and/or the telecommunications provider.
The system envisioned by the patent is a digital interface filled with advertisements targeting both the person behind bars and the person they are trying to reach on the other side. The patent outlines several different possibilities as to when it could deploy ads: before a person can launch an app, background ads behind speakers during a video call, audio ads that run during a call, a scrolling text ad below the images, and even an option for advertisers to buy an ad “that moves or slides across the screen, so the viewing party may be more likely to notice and watch the ad” . Ads aren’t always random, either: the system the patent proposes allows ads to be served based on location, demographics, or other unarticulated “parameters.”
Since the patent was apparently written to cover all scenarios in which advertising could be displayed during a video call, this does not necessarily mean that all of these advertising systems would be running simultaneously during a given call. If implemented, however, the patent appears to leave almost no opportunity for people to communicate without some form of advertising potentially interfering with that conversation.
Studies to have regularly watch that incarcerated people are healthier and more able to reintegrate into society if they maintain meaningful relationships, through communication and visitation, with a support network outside, including family and friends. This patent raises the question of how meaningful these communications will be if they are drowned in invasive advertising.
This patent imagines being both an ad broker and an automated prison guard, with a built-in “communications monitoring system” that listens to calls and imposes disciplinary action when someone violates policies. As Securus writes in the patent: “[The] [c]The communications monitoring engine monitors calls for inappropriate content, such as signs of gangs, pornography, sexual content, and criminal activity, and/or may monitor calls for feedback on advertisements. »
When the system detects “inappropriate content”, it disconnects the communication “and/or alerts an agent or a supervisory authority”. The system could also “document the revocation of resident privileges by logging the violation in the resident’s file or record in the resident database.”
The patent provides a specific scenario (for clarity we have removed numbers referring to parts of a diagram):
For example, an inmate can be notified of a system’s one-shot soft rule on inappropriate content when the inmate receives their ID number and PIN. By using the system, the inmate agrees to the monitoring and also to comply with the content restrictions. When the inmate violates the one-shot rule, the system is flexible as to how the inmate’s access to the system will be limited. For example, the first violation may result in a warning from the interactive communications engine, a one-day suspension from use of the telecommunications system, or a complete revocation of telecommunications privileges. While the system is flexible in how the inmate is sanctioned for violations of the inappropriate content rule, the system strictly enforces the inappropriate content rule. In some embodiments, the communication monitoring engine will also send the suspected communication to prison authorities for review. Upon review, the prison official may reinstate the inmate’s privileges by overwriting the violation in the resident database.
The concept described in the patent should indeed raise red flags. Automated systems used in investigations – from face recognition for automatic license plate readers for acoustic gunshot detection– frequently make mistakes, often with a disproportionate impact on people of color. The patent does not specify how this monitoring would occur. One could easily imagine how an algorithm monitoring jail calls could mistake affectionate slang for threat or mistake American Sign Language gestures for gang signs.
There are many good reasons for people incarcerated to have access to digital communications and resources, especially in the age of Covid restrictions. These systems must always center the humanity of the incarcerated person and the value that comes from communicating with loved ones, family and community, not the earning potential of the institution or vendor.
Unfortunately, the American incarceration system has a long Track record to impose abusive fees on incarcerated persons and their relatives in order to supplement their budgets and generate profits for the vendors.
With this story in mind, we hope that this patent, aimed at a new form of profiting from the needs of incarcerated people, remains confined to paper.