“This all sounds fairly innocent, asking someone to read numbers into a phone,” says Kilgore, “but imagine you are an Uber driver, or you work in service, or in a warehouse, or you are asleep in your bed. There’s a whole range of situations where this breaks your spirit. It’s a constant reminder that you are in control of the state.” Kilgore is suspicious of apps like Guardian for more existential reasons, too. He believes smartphone surveillance tools like this are going to become more popular and will be used to collect data from vulnerable populations. “It’s part of this bigger picture, of grabbing data on the criminalized sector in order to keep tabs on them,” he said.

Mike Nellis, a former probation officer and an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has written about the use of mobile technology to keep track of former offenders. In a paper last year, he explored how smartphone monitoring of the formerly incarcerated could grow to become a kind of “coercive connectivity” that would infiltrate more deeply into offender’s everyday lives. The effectiveness of such technologies, he says, is as much how a country treats the incarcerated as an app’s design. But, he’s noticed, America’s penchant for “disruptive innovation,” as epitomized by Silicon Valley, means the country may cut corners in its quest to rapidly implement the newest and best.

“I have a sense that in the rush to market, American companies are much more careless about the quality of the equipment,” he told Gizmodo in an interview. And the app that’s been terrorizing parolees was built mostly by a third-party that brags on its website about taking the idea of a parole surveillance app “from the back of a napkin to an MVP in 60 days.”

In a response to several detailed questions, a representative from 10Pearls told Gizmodo, “Guardian is a GTL-managed product and 10Pearls has no knowledge of the issues referenced here. Note that geo-location data is provided by the device. 10Pearls assisted in creating the initial prototype in 60 days. The production app was/is a separate version. Nevertheless, we absolutely stand behind our work and contribution to this innovative project, helping reduce recidivism.”

Guardian owner Telmate is a subsidiary of the Global Tel*link Corporation, the conglomerate best known for an exploitative prison telecommunications system. But though Telmate is listed as the developer in various app stores, a company called 10Pearls, with offices in Washington, DC, and San Francisco as well as a team of engineers in Pakistan, appears to have created most of Guardian’s underlying code.

According to its website, 10Pearls is designing the IRS web portal and claims clients such as the AARP and National Geographic. It also claims to have had a relationship with the Department of Homeland Security since 2010, supplying the technology behind the collection, storage, and analysis of biometric data with the Office of Biometric Identity Management.

Gizmodo reviewed Guardian’s code with both Barracuda Networks and Lorenzo Hernandez, a security researcher at Netragard, a penetration testing company. Hernandez characterized the code as “sloppy” and “irresponsible.”

As we found in the review, Guardian checks in with Telmate’s servers every single minute, waking up a phone if it’s asleep and ignoring the operating system’s requests to optimize the battery. Given what Guardian is used for, the app predictably relies on the user granting it access to a number of potentially privacy-invasive sensors on their device, including wifi, Bluetooth, audio settings, and camera access. If a user’s device is jailbroken (a procedure that technically savvy users implement to unlock extra features for their devices), Guardian can potentially access the device’s “super user” account, granting it permission to read, modify, and possibly download all files on the device, including contact information, text messages, photos, videos, and media files.

Perhaps Hernandez’s biggest concern, however, is that the app seems to be capable of recording and storing audio from the device’s microphone without users necessarily knowing it. He says that there is “code for this functionality that’s bolted into the app” that could be triggered even when the phone is in standby or sleep mode—further fueling advocates’ concern about the potential for mass surveillance of recently incarcerated populations.

Almost every review of Guardian on the Google Play store is negative. “If you have this app you’re going to jail,” reads one, citing an inability to check in—the single service the app is supposed to provide for parolees. “Hate it,” reads another, “it goes off for nothing and it’s supposed to be GPS but can’t even detect the right location.” The sole glowing review was left by someone named Jonathan Kudla, who curiously shares a name with Telemate’s former patent attorney.

To Mike Nellis, the Glasgow professor, app-based data collection is a reflection of the punitive American carceral system and the tendency of its parole officers to view their jobs as closer to those of cops than of social workers. When all of this information can be potentially collected, he says, “it’s as if they want to see offenders be unguarded with their phones. It’s a very correctional way of thinking.” Instead of building up resources and providing a semblance of real support for individuals who are coming home from prison, the solution appears to be to offload the price and the labor of re-entry onto individuals, while potentially storing their information for later use.

Layla says being watched by the app felt like a trap. “No matter what I did, they wanted to put me back,” she says. Frustrated after months of Guardian going off for no apparent reason, she was tempted to stop responding to it. “I wanted my parole officer to show up at my house,” she says. “I wanted him to know I was home.”

Other Guardian users were more resigned to the jarring, beeping, misfiring technology they carried around in their pockets as the terms of their release. Asked whether she was concerned the app was collecting information from her or listening in on her calls, the woman in the halfway house in Washington said she’d thought about it. “But there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “If you don’t accept it, then you go back to prison. You’re considered their property. That’s how they see it.”

Update April 27, 2020: Updated to include on the record statement from 10pearls.