Researchers at the University of Washington and Harvard Law School recently published a groundbreaking study analyzing the technical capabilities of 16 electronic monitoring (EM) smartphone apps used as “alternatives” to criminal and civil detention. The study, billed as the “first systematic analysis of the electronic monitoring apps ecosystem,” confirmed many advocates’ fears that EM apps allow access to wide swaths of information, often contain third party trackers, and are frequently unreliable. The study also raises further questions about the lack of transparency involved in the EM app ecosystem, despite local, state, and federal government agencies’ increasing reliance on these apps.
As of 2020, over 2.3 million people in the United States were incarcerated, and an additional 4.5 million were under some form of “community supervision,” including those on probation, parole, pretrial release, or in the juvenile or immigration detention systems. While EM in the form of ankle monitors has long been used by agencies as an “alternative” to detention, local, state, and federal government agencies have increasingly been turning to smartphone apps to fill this function. The way it works is simple: in lieu of incarceration/detention or an ankle monitor, a person agrees to download an EM app on their own phone that allows the agency to track the person’s location and may require the person to submit to additional conditions such as check-ins involving face or voice recognition. The low costs associated with requiring a person to use their own device for EM likely explains the explosion of EM apps in recent years. Although there is no accurate count of the total number of people who use an EM app as an alternative to detention, in the immigration context alone, today nearly 100,000 people are on EM through the BI Smartlink app , up from just over 12,000 in 2018 . Such a high usage calls for a greater need for public understanding of these apps and the information they collect, retain, and share.
The study’s technical analysis, the first of its kind for these types of apps, identified several categories of problems with the 16 apps surveyed. These include privacy issues related to the permissions these apps request (and often require), concerns around the types of third party libraries and trackers they use, who they send data to and how they do it, as well as some fundamental issues around usability and app malfunctions.