The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score’
FRESNO, Calif. — While officers raced to a recent 911 call about a man threatening his ex-girlfriend, a police operator in headquarters consulted software that scored the suspect’s potential for violence the way a bank might run a credit report.
The program scoured billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and the man’s social- media postings. It calculated his threat level as the highest of three color-coded scores: a bright red warning.
The man had a firearm conviction and gang associations, so out of caution police called a negotiator. The suspect surrendered, and police said the intelligence helped them make the right call — it turned out he had a gun.
As a national debate has played out over mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, a new generation of technology such as the Beware software being used in Fresno has given local law enforcement officers unprecedented power to peer into the lives of citizens.
Police officials say such tools can provide critical information that can help uncover terrorists or thwart mass shootings, ensure the safety of officers and the public, find suspects, and crack open cases. They say that last year’s attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., have only underscored the need for such measures.
But the powerful systems also have become flash points for civil libertarians and activists, who say they represent a troubling intrusion on privacy, have been deployed with little public oversight and have potential for abuse or error. Some say laws are needed to protect the public.
In many instances, people have been unaware that the police around them are sweeping up information, and that has spawned controversy. Planes outfitted with cameras filmed protests and unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. For years, dozens of departments used devices that can hoover up all cellphone data in an area without search warrants. Authorities in Oregon are facing a federal probe after using social media-monitoring software to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter hashtags.
“This is something that’s been building since September 11,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “First funding went to the military to develop this technology, and now it has come back to domestic law enforcement. It’s the perfect storm of cheaper and easier-to-use technologies and money from state and federal governments to purchase it.”
Few departments will discuss how — or sometimes if — they are using these tools, but the Fresno police offered a rare glimpse inside a cutting-edge $600,000 nerve center, even as a debate raged in the city over its technology.
Fresno’s Real Time Crime Center is the type of facility that has become the model for high-tech policing nationwide. Similar centers have opened in New York, Houston and Seattle over the past decade.
Fresno’s futuristic control room, which operates around the clock, sits deep in its headquarters and brings together a handful of technologies that allow the department to see, analyze and respond to incidents as they unfold across this city of more than 500,000 in the San Joaquin Valley.
On a recent Monday afternoon, the center was a hive of activity. The police radio crackled over loudspeakers — “subject armed with steel rod” — as five operators sat behind banks of screens dialing up a wealth of information to help units respond to the more than 1,200 911 calls the department receives every day.
On 57 monitors that cover the walls of the center, operators zoomed and panned an array of roughly 200 police cameras perched across the city. They could dial up 800 more feeds from the city’s schools and traffic cameras, and they soon hope to add 400 more streams from cameras worn on officers’ bodies and from thousands from local businesses that have surveillance systems.
The cameras were only one tool at the ready. Officers could trawl a private database that has recorded more than 2 billion scans of vehicle licenses plates and locations nationwide. If gunshots were fired, a system called ShotSpotter could triangulate the location using microphones strung around the city. Another program, called Media Sonar, crawled social media looking for illicit activity. Police used it to monitor individuals, threats to schools and hashtags related to gangs.
They recently used the cameras to track a robbery suspect as he fled a business and then jumped into a canal to hide. He was quickly apprehended.
The license plate database was instrumental in solving a September murder case, in which police had a description of a suspect’s vehicle and three numbers from the license plate.
But perhaps the most controversial and revealing technology is the threat-scoring software Beware. Fresno is one of the first departments in the nation to test the program.
As officers respond to calls, Beware automatically runs the address. The searches return the names of residents and scans them against a range of publicly available data to generate a color-coded threat level for each person or address: green, yellow or red.
Exactly how Beware calculates threat scores is something that its maker, Intrado, considers a trade secret, so it is unclear how much weight is given to a misdemeanor, felony or threatening comment on Facebook. However, the program flags issues and provides a report to the user.
In promotional materials, Intrado writes that Beware could reveal that the resident of a particular address was a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, had criminal convictions for assault and had posted worrisome messages about his battle experiences on social media. The “big data” that has transformed marketing and other industries has now come to law enforcement.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said officers are often working on scant or even inaccurate information when they respond to calls, so Beware and the Real Time Crime Center give them a sense of what may be behind the next door.
source: Washington post