Fault Lines
25 April 2017

Beware The Threat Score

Jan. 12, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The Washington Post published an article on Sunday by Justin Jouvenal that offered a surprisingly candid view into the nerve center of the Fresno, California Police Department and their new methodology of threat assessment.   Using technology known as Beware software, Fresno officers have the ability to “score” a “suspect’s potential for violence the way a bank might run a credit report.”

The Fresno officers use the example of how helpful the software can be by demonstrating how they handled a 911 call involving a man armed with a bat.

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.

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 o three color-coded scores:  a bright red warning.

Fortunately, the story ended well for the man with the bat. Based on the bright red warning, Fresno Police brought a negotiator.  Despite being armed with a gun, he ultimately surrendered peacefully.  Success stories like this one leave the police department making no apologies for any invasions of privacy.

“Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen,” [Fresno Police Chief Jerry] Dyer said. “They are making split-second decisions based on limited facts.  The more you can provide in terms of intelligence and video, the more safely you can respond to calls.”

As noted in the article, police using technology to assist them in all things crime fighting, is not a new concept.

The number of local police departments that employ some type of technological surveillance increased from 20 percent in 1997 to more than 90 percent in 2013, according to the latest information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The fact that more and more police agencies are using technological surveillance should not be surprising. After all, if one agency comes up with what it deems to be a good idea, it stands to reason that other agencies will think so, as well.  The fact that these “technological surveillances” are becoming more and more intrusive should not be surprising, either.  The information used by companies and services like Beware is basically just data mining for public information.

What is both surprising and frightening is not so much that the police are eager to have access to such private information.  Rather, the idea that they are allowing a company such as Beware to interpret it for them.  Not only are they outsourcing their information gathering, they are outsourcing their response protocols.

While civil libertarians and activists call the data gathered by entities like Beware a “troubling intrusion on privacy,” the reality is that the information being mined was placed into the public eye voluntarily.  Most people may expect things like arrest reports and property records to be fair game for the police to examine, but they tend to bristle at the idea of the government looking at their Facebook page.  Posting about how much you like smoking weed, or how much you hate the cops is a great way of showing friends how rebellious you are, but you would really hate for that type of info to get back to anyone who matters, right?

At this point in the History of Technology, anyone who is still surprised that what is written on Facebook or Twitter can be used against him or her is a fool. The fact that there are companies out there who thrive on collecting that damning data and having it readily available to turn over to the police is simply technological evolution.  That should be surprising to absolutely no one.

As Jouvenal’s article notes, the much larger concern is the fact that companies like Beware aren’t just gathering the information for the police, they are interpreting it for them as well.  In the case profiled by the article, the man threatening his girlfriend was classified as “a bright red warning.”  That classification wasn’t given to him by the Fresno Police Department.  It was given to him by Beware.  Fortunately, the police responded with a trained negotiator rather than the SWAT team in this incident, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see that scenario playing out much, much differently.

The article correctly points out that there are many concerns, not the least of them being that Beware isn’t exactly transparent when showing what goes on behind the curtain.

[Fresno civil rights lawyer Rob] Nabarro said the fact that only [Beware’s producer] Intrado – not the police or the public – knows how Beware tallies its scores is disconcerting.  He also worries that the system might mistakenly increase someone’s threat level by misinterpreting innocuous activity on social media, like criticizing the police, and trigger a heavier response by officers.

Jouvenal cites two examples of Beware making overaggressive labels:  one on a woman whose “threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled ‘Rage’,” and another involving a Fresno City Council member who had an elevated level on his home due to possible activity by a previous owner.

While these little “errors” may seem somewhat trivial at first glance, remember that we are just talking about the first steps into these unchartered waters here. Currently, only a few police agencies are experimenting with software like Beware.  The credence that each individual agency will give to the information they gather from the software will certainly vary.  The Fresno Police Department seems to currently treat the information as a helpful suggestion.  Helpful suggestions that are well received, however, have a tendency to become protocols, and those protocols may not always be as tame as just bringing a negotiator to a Code Red call.

The idea of outsourcing police thinking is by no means new.  The idea of outsourcing police judgment isn’t just new, it’s alarming.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Cornflake S. Pecially
    12 January 2016 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Beware the warrants that may soon be issued because the algorithms says so.

    Hell, why not just have a DA and a judge hang out in the 911 call centers and include the warrant with the original dispatch broadcast to the cops?

    • Eva
      12 January 2016 at 7:53 pm - Reply

      I would like to think you’re alternate persona is this mild mannered person with glasses whose pseudonym Mr. Pecially remains unknown to your closest associates.

      hilarious…..

  • Cornflake S. Pecially
    13 January 2016 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Shh…