Skip navigation

Article on video calling quotes PLN editor

Forbes, Feb. 6, 2018.

Video Is Erasing People, From Prison To Porn, As Wall Street Profits

by Janet Burns

As technology grows ever more powerful and entwined in our lives, it's good to remember that science fiction aims not only to let us envision potential disasters down the road, but also to grasp very real dangers already upon us.

For example, from Philip K. Dick to Star Trek and Black Mirror, sci-fi has repeatedly imagined the innovation and horror involved in humans being replaced with high-tech doppelgangers, including ones sophisticated enough to fool whole families or nations. And while science has a long way to go before Replicants and other bio-machines are fleshed out, technology is already stepping in where humans have traditionally served and separating us with screens.

In some cases, it can already make people disappear.

Increasingly, artificially intelligent and 'learning' tech have been able to create or re-create digital versions of humans' appearances, as well as our voices and our thoughts, that many of us will accept as 'real.' AI has lately shown its prowess at recognizing and generating images of well-known and unfamiliar faces, too, suggesting that the ability to fake a dynamic, realistic range of human visuals is not far off.

Recently, one developer made waves with a piece of AI that rapidly accelerates the process of stitching someone into an extant piece of video, which has traditionally required exhaustive frame-by-frame editing. As The Verge reported in December, the machine-learning tool was used to replace the face of a porn actress with that of Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot in a successful, if not spotless, demo of the tech.

For those folk capable of showing up to challenge a faked sex tape or bogus crime reel, the process of reclaiming our or our families' identities would likely still be difficult, and almost certainly expensive. For those of us whose loved ones are tangibly out of reach, however — whether through distance, authority, or both — the first signs of digital abduction may already come too late

Of course, most of us probably feel that any attempt by government, enemies or whoever to specifically smear or disappear us with technology (or at all) would be extremely surprising, to say the least -- though stranger things have almost certainly happened. We might also imagine, pretty reasonably, that doing so would be difficult.

After all, many humans tend to move through a web of different touch points and interactions each day, between work, home, relationships, and everything else. Often, we also have ample means of contacting or reaching other people, engaging their support, or just effortlessly proving our whereabouts.

Distance alone won't break these connections, in many cases. In the military, for example, deployed troops and their families must often rely on Skype and other chatting tools to stay in touch, but can typically also ask a neighbor or fellow service member to do a spot check if something seems amiss. The same goes for many immigrant families, with groups who have gathered on two different sides of the border or globe.

Where humans become detached from these webs or communities familiar with them and are only available by screen or phone, however, their chance of disappearing unnoticed becomes very real.

When a human is in jail, that chance simply exists. And according to experts, many states are making it worse.

For years, advocacy groups have demonstrated that families already struggle to keep in touch with incarcerated loves ones and to stay informed if they get sick, hurt, killed, or lost in the system, whether they'd been convicted of a crime or were awaiting misdemeanor or immigration charges.

When inmates can communicate, the cost of government-contracted phone calls has been high to prohibitive for most inmates' families, especially when part of their earning team is behind bars. Frequently, families have reported spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for weeks' worth of remote contact with inmates, whether instate or across the country, and being forced to go without it entirely. Depending on visiting hours and facility placement, actually laying eyes on an incarcerated relative can be a chore, too, or just impossible.

More recently, however, facilities around the country have moved to promote digital video-visitation services in lieu of in-person visits with inmates, citing convenience and cost, broadly speaking.

In many cases, agreements that corrections officials have made to secure remote, pay-per-view chat services from the over $1 billion prison telecom industry have also required facilities to completely end in-person visits, and offer on-site video instead.

According to Paul Wright, founder and Executive Director of the Human Rights Defense Center, and the editor of Prison Legal News, prison telecommunications companies have spent the past few years heading in the same direction: marketing video to jails (rather than prisons, for the most part) as part of bundled phone, security, or other service contracts to improve profits.

Wright pointed to incarcerated telecom-leader Securus Technologies, which began requiring its client facilities to replace in-person visits with video terminals over a year ago, as having led the charge to boost business by pushing their new products hard. "Their mainstay remains the telephone," he explained early last year by phone. "But phone revenues are crunched, and I think they’ve concluded that the only way they can foist expensive, low-quality video on people is by getting rid of in-person visits."

In Maricopa County, AZ, for example, friends and family can remotely chat with inmates using Securus' Mobile App for $7.99 per 20 minute block (not including variable fees). 20-minute and 40-minute onsite video visits from friends and family, which place inmates and visitors in separate buildings, and all chunks of video communication with lawyers are free. In other states and counties, the cost of video chatting can easily rise several dollars per session.

Each facility has its own set of practices and regulations for using the technology and contacting inmates, as do many states and counties. Securus also notes in its terms and conditions that the quality of its services are dependent on several external factors and that a credit card and account are required for visitors to start scheduling pre-paid, nonrefundable video calls. 

Bernadette Rabuy, Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, commented by phone that Securus was first to stipulate that client facilities couldn't offer in-person visits, and that at least one smaller competitor has followed suit. The technology for video-chats has been around for a few years, she noted, but has expanded rapidly as Securus and fellow prison telecom leader GTL have pushed for adoption.

Users frequently complain about poor visual and audio quality, Rabuy said, whether they're connecting via mobile or in a separate building on jail property. However, the most common complaint is lack of eye contact, she said.

Because of the gap between screen and camera in most on-site facilities, it's even more difficult for users to be facing each other on screen, or to attempt pseudo-eye contact than it is on mobile. At the same time, seating is often bolted to the ground, and for children, having the sound and picture come from different places can add to their confusion and trauma, Rabuy said.

"Their commercials make it look great, and heartwarming, but it does not match what I’ve heard from people who use the system, or with my own experience using the system," Rabuy said. "It's very inflexible, and when it becomes the only option, and children are having to use it, those sorts of things can be even more important."

As long as the free option exists, Rabuy said, companies are unlikely to make money on video service for jails -- making it somewhat pointless to force families to lose 'glass' visits, where they're at least face to face. "Families with incarcerated members tend to be lower-income, and maybe don’t have the best internet, so they're going in where the quality is better, and it's free."

Both Rabuy and Wright acknowledge that forcing people to communicate through privately controlled apps and platforms poses any number of risks, involving anything from high-tech surveillance and interference to simple suppression of civil rights. Given the frequently low quality and complexity of video visits (technologically speaking), they also agreed that editing them -- or even faking whole calls -- is a feasible feat down the road.

At present, though, their foremost concerns surround the immediate impacts for inmates and families when they can no longer search a loved one's smile, or take in key physical details and cues, with their own eyes.

"There’s a lot going on right now in terms of policy choices, including criminal justice policy choices, and in some ways, the use of video calls in jails can feel like a small issue," Rabuy said. "But I think it has the potential to have really long-lasting consequences for the criminal justice system. Most states already have it, and the fear is that in-person visits will disappear entirely; at that point, it's very hard to imagine we'll bring them back." 

She continued, "We would love if video visitation was a supplement, and definitely see the value in [it], but think it’s been implemented in a really harmful and misleading way." For example, it could be put to good use in federal prisons, when people can be hundreds of miles away from their families, Rabuy said. "However, we’re mostly seeing it in jails, where people tend to be close to home."

"It's a little odd, if you think about it," she reflected. "The most restrictive visitation rules in our country affect those with low-level charges, or who haven't been convicted of a crime."

"On top of that is the fact that when people are in local jails is when they’re closest to family and friends. That's when they're most likely to get visits from family and friends, and that is when we're making it impossible."

Lucius Couloute, a research associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, told The Guardian last month that he estimates at least 600 U.S. facilities currently have video visitation programs in place. 

And while video visitation continues to spread across the country, the product itself is unlikely to be swaying consumers, according to Wright -- or investors, for the matter. "One of the things we’ve been trying to do with the [Federal Communications Commission] is keep them from allowing companies to bundle the contracts," Wright commented. 

"My gut feeling is that they’re losing money on video," he said last winter. "I don't have any evidence, but if they were making money hand over fist like with their telephone services, I think they'd be going public about it, and telling people. They're in business to make money."

"If you're an investor, you have a right to say, 'Let me look at your numbers,' and maybe those numbers tell a different story about the whole picture," Wright said. "Basically, the only things these businesses do is exploit people in prison and their families. So if you're okay with that basic premise, I don’t think the fact that inmates can't see their families is going to change things."

Rabuy noted that there are numerous ongoing state-level campaigns to protect in-person visits, and to stop officials from building new jails without real-life visiting facilities. Texas law currently requires in-person visits (and clarifies that video doesn't count), she said, and California passed such a law in both houses a few years ago, but it was vetoed by the governor.

In 2013, an FCC analysis found that companies' fees “have caused inmates and their friends and families to subsidize everything from inmate welfare to salaries and benefits, states’ general revenue funds, and personnel training,” and that companies were found to compete "not based on price or service quality, but on the size of the commission.” 

For years, the FCC has discussed regulating the prison phone industry's high cost to families from a federal level -- at least, for 15 years on record so far -- but hasn't taken many real steps to do so, according to advocates. Last year, the FCC chose to approve the sale of Securus to Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, owned by Tom Gores of Detroit Pistons fame, while acknowledging some of the advocates' key concerns.

At the time, the FCC fined Securus $1.7 million for reportedly misleading the FCC during the process. In their dissent to the decision, Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel wrote, "Is this transfer of control and consent decree just a slap on the wrist? More like a pat on the back ... [and] precedent-setting. Until now, the FCC has never granted a transfer of control when a company has made misrepresentations during the review process.”

Last month, Securus also announced the launch of its own wireless network for corrections facilities, designed to suppress connection from unauthorized or contraband phones, as well its new national video-relay system and the company's acquisition of GovPayNet, a fee-based service that accepts payments to the government.

Securus was reached out to for comment, which will be included her when and if available.

As one of the most vulnerable groups, inmates have been among the first to face having video as their only choice for seeing or being seen by others, but its adoption has been viral everywhere. Over the past several years, advances in technology have increasingly let video feeds or prerecorded messages stand in for live appearances, from law and medicine to relationships and entertainment.

At the same time, AI and almost constant surveillance have similarly gained bigger roles in our lives, with chatbots and cameras (some sophisticated, some not) filling in where people have been, and could never have gone.

Together, these trends raise a number of important questions without easy answers. And for the foreseeable future, only human intelligence is equipped to handle the subtlety of these gray areas, which are shifting daily.

Late last year, for example, a man was wounded and arrested after allegedly trying to set off a pipe bomb inside a subway tunnel in Midtown New York City, and was later arraigned on charges from his hospital bed via courtroom video link. The same month, worldwide viewers flocked to the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, which has taken to digitally reviving deceased actors or characters for the last few films.

While different in many ways, these instances both represent choices to use technology with possible pros and cons, whether regarding the well-being and rights of the public, or that of individuals under arrest, or after they've died. In addition to the questions they raise, both recent cases also present another quality that only humans, not computers, are tending to see: a screen.

Which, as an element we've invited to take over much of our lives and economy, is worth looking closely at.

Of course, innovation-wise, we can't stop technology from moving forward, or from growing ever more complex. However, nearly all of us can make meaningful choices about how we want to use that tech -- and what we will allow it to do in our lives' and others' -- from now on.

For investors, the choice at hand may seem especially difficult, given the pressure they're under to serve revenues as well as clients who've never heard of prison video visits, or AI porn. If Wall Street doesn't commit soon to helping draw the line between what is and is not acceptable human treatment and behavior, however, then all Americans will be paying the price before they know it.