When it comes to prison phone calls, security is kinda a big deal. The whole premise behind the calls being recorded is security. Doing so, states and counties have argued, prevents crime both inside and outside of jail. Securus Technologies, the Dallas-based company that provides prison and jail phone services across the country — and in Dallas County — has claimed both that it values keeping recorded calls secure and that it won't record phone calls that are privileged, like those between an inmate and his attorney.
A massive data breach revealed Wednesday shows that Securus could not have been more wrong. Through its SecureDrop anonymous portal, the Glen Greenwald-led website The Intercept was given 37 gigabytes of data hacked from Securus. Included in the data are records from more than 70 million phone calls to 1.3 million unique phone numbers made by more than 63,000 inmates between 2011 and 2014. Download links to many of the phone calls were included with the records.
According to The Intercept, many of the conversations available were mundane. Inmates talked with love ones about watching Dancing with the Stars or how they were going to pay for their next calls (before an October FCC ruling, short phone calls could easily cost $15 or more), but some 14,000 of the calls were made between inmates and their lawyers. Privileged phone calls that should never have been recorded in the first place were, according to the data dump, recorded and stored in a way that they were accessed and distributed by a hacker.
"For Securus being a technology company, this seems to be really crappy technology," says Josh Gravens, the executive director of Organize Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.
When Dallas County looked to sign a new contract with Securus last year, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins criticized the company's plan to include surcharges it would kick back to the county as a site-use fee. Jenkins argued that the county budget should not be funded with the help of cash from inmates at the county jail, most of whom haven't been convicted of anything yet, and their families. He was outvoted 4-1 by the rest of the commissioners court, but was eventually vindicated by the FCC's decision.
In many places, including Austin, where a group of lawyers has sued Securus for recording privileged calls, the onus is on inmates and attorneys to provide numbers to be placed on a "do not record" list. If that system doesn't work, Securus should be able to come up with something that does, Gravens says.
"If that ancient technology of writing things down on a piece of paper doesn't work, you find innovative solutions. Technology companies find innovative solutions all the time," Gravens says. "It seems Securus struggles to come up with anything innovative except craftier ways to give kickbacks to county officials."
Jennifer Long has dealt with Securus since 2014 when a loved one was sent to Florida State Prison, and has trouble describing how upset the leak made her.
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"It makes me feel beyond angry. As if I weren't already angry enough by how I feel that they steal money from the very people who put money on inmates' accounts [Securus charges fees for everything. Loading money into your account with a credit or debit card, making an offsite video visit — that all costs extra], when I heard about this I was absolutely shocked on one hand," she says. "On the other hand, I wasn't shocked at all. With Securus, you just wait for the next piece of bad news to come out."
Long says she's even more worried about the calls she might make in the future.
"You just have to keep in mind, what if this was suddenly plastered on the Internet tomorrow?" she says. "The leak gives me pause for many reasons."
Securus CEO Rick Smith did not return a call seeking comment on the leak and its potential consequences.