Privacy SOS

Feds want researchers to use AI and GPS trackers to predict “risky” behavior

The National Institute for Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, has published an advertisement for a grant seeking proposals for projects that deploy artificial intelligence to reduce recidivism among the five million people under the control of parole and probation across the United States. A few of the example projects NIJ highlights sound similar to interventions some advocates of criminal legal system reforms have been suggesting in recent years, for example using risk assessment tools to predict when someone might need services, instead of to make punitive recommendations. Some of the NIJ’s other areas of interest are downright frightening.

One example project highlights the use of artificial intelligence to mine data from GPS shackles people are often required to wear as a condition of their release from incarceration, and to use those data to make predictions about when someone may be engaged in “potentially risky behavior.” The advertisement reads:

Intelligent Offender Tracking — Tracking devices, such as GPS-based ankle bracelets, are used to monitor offenders in the community. Using the geospatial and temporal data from those devices, coupled with an understanding of how the attributes of the places an offender visits interact with their recidivism risks and how that changes with the time of the visit, AI can detect (and possibly predict) potentially risky behavior. Based on the nature of the event, an AI could autonomously take a number of different actions to address the risk. Those might include, alerting the supervising officer or a mentor, or initiating a chat bot system through an offender’s mobile device that is trained to deescalate situations. AI-initiated actions may also include notifying the offender through their mobile device to suggest a cooling-off period in a safe space, or to promote behavior modification techniques.

Over the past decade, the number of people in the US required to wear GPS shackles has doubled. The “First Step Act,” heralded by the Trump administration as a major criminal justice reform, includes provisions that will expand the number of people on 24/7 electronic monitoring. As GPS shackling expert James Kilgore has written, “Strict regimes of house arrest associated with electronic monitoring replicate the confinement of prison and can block people from employment, family activities, medical care and practicing their religion.” 

In December 2018, Kilgore warned about the implications of further entrenching electronic shackling into federal law.

In the contemporary moment, electronic monitors form the point of convergence between mass incarceration and the surveillance state. E-shackles not only act like an e-cage but also mimic a team of spies following people around, checking out where they go and who they hang out with, and noting all their personal habits. If they are undocumented or suspected of being “gang members,” shackles link them to their “partners in crime.”

The federal government appears to be moving full steam ahead towards just that kind of nightmare scenario. Read more about GPS shackling, which advocates call “e-carceration,” and the fight to end it.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.