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The Parole App Trap

Parole monitoring apps for smartphones have been marketed as more cost-effective and less intrusive alternatives to traditional ankle monitoring or other strap-on GPS devices. Once concerns over the spread of the coronavirus added another powerful selling point, the apps became more popular than ever.

But not everyone has been a satisfied customer. “[I]t was like being locked up again,” said William Keck III, who was placed on the Shadowtrack app as the least restrictive level of parole in Virginia. He was only required to verbally respond to questions once a month so voice-recognition could identify him, then type some answers. If the app did not flag anything as suspicious, he was done until the next month – except that the app tracked every move that he made.

Dale Jacobson, who operates the voice-verification biometrics unit in the Virginia Department of Corrections, saw the use of the app expand as a result of the pandemic. Like other changes spurred by COVID-19, “I can’t imagine it going away,” he said.

Around 11,000 people in Virginia are being watched by Shadowtrack. But rather than taking the place of ankle monitors, the app is being employed as an additional method of control. Federal statistics from Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported 29,459 individuals monitored by bracelets in March 2021, an increase of almost 1,000 from the previous fiscal year; meanwhile, 28,581 were being watched by the Smartlink app, an increase of nearly 3,000.

Privacy and civil rights advocates are troubled by the predictive algorithms used by some of the apps. Smartlink, which is operated by a subsidiary of the GEO Group, analyzes travel patterns to flag “risk locations” and calculates probabilities of absconding.

A federal grant has been funding research at Purdue University that would enable tracking apps to keep tabs on changes in heart rate and cortisol levels, then notify a parole officer about potential “risky” behavior. How – or if – the app would distinguish between typical stress-inducing activities like exercise or sex and possibly illegal ones is unclear.

For parolees like Michael, who was released after more than 23 years in prison, the apps themselves are a significant source of stress.

“To be subject, at any given time, for you to get a call and they’re like ‘Where you at?’ and you have to stop what you’re doing – it’s very uncomfortable. You’ll be at work, you don’t want to answer the phone,” says Michael. “I was one of the lucky ones where I had an understanding PO ... A lot of them would prefer for us to rot in prison. Some don’t believe there’s such a thing as rehabilitation.” 

 

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