The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Monitoring Online Purchases of Inmates’ Family and Friends

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The Catalog of Carceral Surveillance: Monitoring Online Purchases of Inmates’ Family and Friends

Prison wardens and detention center administrators have, for years, faced what they believe to be a serious problem. While they can surveill every aspect of the lives of the people imprisoned in their facilities, they typically have no ability to violate the privacy and civil liberties of the friends and family of incarcerated people. Fortunately for prison administrators, Securus has a solution. 

Securus is one of the prison telecommunications companies notable for overcharging inmates for the privilege of communication with their loved ones. They have filed a patent application describing a method of “linking controlled-environment facility residents and associated non-resident telephone numbers to … e-commerce accounts associated with the captured telephone number” and “information about purchases made by a non-resident associated with the accessed e-commerce account.”   

In other words, Securus wants to capture the phone numbers of everyone a prisoner talks to, including friends and family, and use that information to scrutinize their e-commerce purchases. 

In their patent application, Securus provides the following example of how prisons might use this invasive and dangerous technology. 

A flowchart describing how the app would determine information about the transactions

The flowchart submitted with the patent describing how the e-commerce surveillance system would work. 

“[I]nmate call records may show that an inmate made calls to their girlfriend before escaping. Investigators question the girlfriend, but she provides no help. However, investigators employ embodiments of the present systems and methods, using the DTN [Dialed Telephone Number] used by the inmate to call the girlfriend, to find that the girlfriend had purchased skiing equipment through an e-commerce app associate with the DTN and made a reservation through another (or the same) e-commerce app (such as a homestay app) for a house in a remote area in the Colorado mountains. Investigators find the escaped convict and the girlfriend at the house using the data obtained through the invention.

Securus’s patent would be a massive civil liberties violation, and a dangerous expansion in the powers of prison administrators to surveill people not under their carceral control. One may wonder, though, how Securus would implement this patent in practice. Surely Securus isn’t suggesting that prison wardens would hack the accounts of people who make phone calls to prisons. And not many people would willingly give a prison administrator access to their Amazon or other online shopping account. 

Luckily for wardens, Securus has come up with a “solution” for this problem: an end-user license agreement. 

In their patent application Securus suggests that prison officials could obtain a waiver from anyone wishing to communicate with an incarcerated person, that would allow prison officials to then root around in the proverbial sock drawer of that person’s e-commerce purchases. Understanding that very few people would knowingly agree to this waiver, Securus helpfully suggests: “Such a waiver may be part of an end user agreement associated with use of controlled-environment facility communication services, including, such as by way of example, a controlled-environment facility communications app.” The patent continues: “the waiver may allow the resident’s controlled-environment facility, a controlled-environment facility communication vendor, law enforcement, and/or the like, to garner passwords from the non-resident’s mobile device, computer, etc. to use for such access.”

One solution to the privacy nightmare that is Securus is following in the state of Connecticut’s lead. In June 2021, Connecticut became the first state in the United States to make all calls in and out of prisons free. Other states should do the same–and given the massive wave of activism around prison abolition and reform, it seems likely that they might. 

Securus seeks to coerce a Faustian bargain upon people who love someone in prison: give us the power to monitor your online purchases, or wait to talk to your loved one only after we let them go. Securus should withdraw this odorous idea.

Published September 07, 2021 at 08:51PM
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