Readers may recall our story earlier this month about Securus, a leading prison telephony provider, being hacked and how the hackers discovered that the company was recording thousands of privileged communications that lawyers had with inmates. The Intercept had received the tip-off, along with the calls, and reported on the subject. Securus defended itself by saying that these lawyers must not have registered their phone numbers with the “service.”
Now, in a most trollish move, the company has been granted a patent for contacting your relatives when you’re in jail and asking them if they want to pay for your calls or not. They call this “initiating a campaign to proactively contact” people who are associated with someone after a “campaign triggering event.” Meaning, when you are booked, they use whatever information is at their disposal to robocall your family members and find out if they want to pay for the privilege of talking to you – which can cost up to “$1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call.”
$1.65 is a recent figure, since the FCC lowered the rate limits for such calls in October. Previously, the same call could legally cost up to $2.96. Overall, the prison communications industry earns around $1.2 billion per year – mostly from underprivileged and impoverished inmates and their families. Indeed, the patent itself notes the poverty of its prey:
Further, by its nature, the market segment of customers whom the prison telephony service provider bills includes individuals that have particularly high-risk credit […] [I]ndividuals in this market segment are very often transient, fraudulent, and/or otherwise untrustworthy. Certain steps may be taken by the prison’s telephony service provider in attempt to evaluate the credit worthiness of the party to be billed […] [B]efore connecting a requested collect call, the prison’s telephony system may access a line information database (LIDB) that contains subscriber information for the called party, and the prison’s telephony system may use information obtained from the LIDB to evaluate whether to connect the collect call to such called party.
The patent (#US9026468 B2) is considered by some to be “obvious,” which is patent terminology for “not original enough.” It usually means a not-so-innovative use of existing technology. Robocalling is nothing new. Probably everyone reading this has received a robocall. The “triggering event” could amount to an invasion of privacy if an inmate had time to sue Securus.
But nevertheless, after years of processing, the patent has been granted, though not without resistance. The first examiner rejected the patent on grounds of being obvious, but was overruled upon Securus’ appeal. The reasoning was a technicality, which is ironic because technicalities usually work against an applicant to any kind of government office. In the 2012 ruling, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board said:
Although the standard for combining references is flexible, “rejections on obviousness grounds cannot be sustained by mere conclusory statements; instead, there must be some articulated reasoning with some rational underpinning to support the legal conclusion of obviousness.”
One has to wonder if Securus intends to patent troll its competitors who use similar tactics or if it merely wants to protect its “technology.”
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