Monday, May 23, 2022 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm
KEC 1007

Speaker Information

Kentrell Owens
PhD Candidate
Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
University of Washington


Courts have ruled that incarcerated people have a diminished right to privacy. But what does that mean for people who are not incarcerated who are also caught up in the ever-widening net of surveillance? In this talk I will discuss prior work on how carceral surveillance impacts two communities: families members of incarcerated people and people under community supervision (e.g., release from immigrant detention, probation, parole).

Surveillance of communication between incarcerated and non-incarcerated people has steadily increased, enabled partly by technological advancements. Third-party vendors control communication tools for most U.S. prisons and jails and offer surveillance capabilities beyond what individual facilities could realistically implement. Frequent communication with family improves mental health and post-carceral outcomes for incarcerated people, but does discomfort about surveillance affect how their relatives communicate with them? To explore this question and others we conducted 16 semi-structured interviews with participants who have incarcerated relatives. Among other findings, we learned that participants communicate despite privacy concerns that they felt helpless to address. We also observed inaccuracies in participants’ beliefs about surveillance practices. We discussed implications of inaccurate understandings of surveillance, misaligned incentives between end-users and vendors, how our findings enhanced ongoing conversations about carceral justice, and recommendations for more privacy-sensitive communication tools. In a subsequent project I focused on the rise in the use of smartphone applications (apps) to monitor people under community supervision. Electronic monitoring is the use of technology to track individuals accused or convicted of a crime (or civil violation) as an "alternative to incarceration." Traditionally, this technology has been in the form of ankle monitors, but recently federal, state, and local entities around the U.S. are shifting to using smartphone applications for electronic monitoring. These apps purport to make the monitoring simpler and more convenient for both the community supervisor and the person being monitored. However, due to the multipurpose nature of smartphones in people's lives and the amount of sensitive information (e.g., sensor data) smartphones make available, this introduces new risks to people coerced to use these apps.

To understand what type of privacy-related and other risks might be introduced to people who use these applications, we conducted a privacy-oriented analysis of 16 Android apps used for electronic monitoring. We analyzed the apps first technically, with static and (limited) dynamic analysis techniques. We also analyzed user reviews in the Google Play Store to understand the experiences of the people using these apps, and also the privacy policies. We found that the apps contain numerous trackers, the permissions requested by them vary widely (with the most common one being location), and the reviews indicate that people find the apps invasive and frequently dysfunctional. We ended our paper by encouraging mobile app marketplaces to reconsider their role in the future of electronic monitoring apps, and computer security and privacy researchers to consider their potential role in auditing carceral technologies. We hope that this work will lead to more transparency in this obfuscated ecosystem.

Speaker Bio

Kentrell Owens is a PhD student in the Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington and a member of the Security and Privacy Research Lab. He is co-advised by Franziska Roesner and Tadayoshi Kohno. He is specifically interested in the computer security and privacy needs of underserved communities. He has recently published work on web authentication, the surveillance of the communication of incarcerated people and their families, and the risks of using smartphone applications for electronic monitoring (e.g., as a condition of probation/parole).