“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.”
Though the intricate surveillance apparatus described above seems straight from a dystopic novel, it is actually the Washington Post’s recent description of the the visual data collection system employed by a local California police department. The police department in Fresno, California, has taken extreme measures to combat high rates of crime in the city.
As the Post reports, Fresno’s Real Time Crime Center, buried deep in the police station’s headquarters, has developed as a response to what many police call increasing threats. The system, according to police officials, 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” — a feature they say is increasingly important in the wake of events like the November terror attack in Paris and the San Bernardino shooting last month.
“Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen,” Fresno Chief of Police 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.”
Programs similar to the Real Time Crime Center have launched in New York, Houston, and Seattle over the course of the last decade. Nationwide, the use of Stingrays, data fusion centers, and aerial drone surveillance have broadened the access local police have to private information. In another example, the FBI is continually developing a comprehensive biometric database that local police access every day.
“This is something that’s been building since September 11,” says Jennifer Lynch, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Like the problem of police militarization, Lynch traces the trend back to the Pentagon:
“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.”
While many of these programs may fail to shock Americans, one new software program takes police scrutiny of private citizens to a new level. Beware, a software tool produced by tech firm Intrado, not only surveils the data of the citizens of Fresno, the first city to test it — it calculates threat levels based on what it discovers.
The software scours arrest records, property records, Deep Web searches, commercial databases, and social media postings. By this method, it was able to designate a man with a firearm and gang convictions involved in a real-time domestic violence dispute as the highest of three threat levels: a bright red ranking. Fresno police say the intelligence from Beware aided them, as the man eventually surrendered and officers found he was armed with a gun.
Beware scours billions of data points to develop rankings for citizens, and though few recoil at the thought of catching criminals and miscreants, the program provides particular cause for concern because of both its invasiveness and its fallibility.
These shortcomings have sparked concern among Fresno’s city council members, who discussed the issue at a meeting in November. At that meeting, one council member cited an incident where a girl who posted on social media about a card game called “Rage” was consequently given an elevated threat ranking — all because “rage” could be a triggering keyword for Beware.
At that same meeting, libertarian-leaning Republican councilman Clinton J. Olivier asked Chief Dyer to use the technology to calculate his threat level. In real-time, Olivier was given a green, or non-threatening ranking, but his home received a yellow, or medium, threat ranking. It was likely due to the record of his home’s prior occupant.
“Even though it’s not me that’s the yellow guy, your officers are going to treat whoever comes out of that house in his boxer shorts as the yellow guy,” Olivier told Dyer. “That may not be fair to me.” He added later, “[Beware] has failed right here with a council member as the example.”
“It’s a very unrefined, gross technique,” Fresno civil rights attorney, Rob Nabarro, has said of Beware’s color-coded levels. “A police call is something that can be very dangerous for a citizen,” he noted, echoing Olivier’s worries.
Further, though Fresno police use Beware, they are left in the dark about how it determines rankings. Intrado designates the method a “trade secret,” and as such, will not share it with the officers who use it. This element of the software’s implementation has concerned civil rights advocates like Nabarro. He believes the secrecy surrounding the technology may result in unfair, unchecked threat rankings.
Nabarro cautioned that between the software’s secrecy and room for error, Beware could accidentally rank a citizen as dangerous based on, for example, posts on social media criticizing police. This potential carries with it the ability for citizens to be punished not for actual crimes, but for exercising basic constitutional rights. Further, it compromises the rights of individuals who have been previously convicted of crimes, potentially using past behavior to assume guilt in unrelated future incidents.
Chief Dyer insists concerns are exaggerated and that a particular score does not guarantee a particular police response. Police maintain the tools are necessary to fight crime. Nevertheless, following the heated November meeting, Dyer suggested he would work to turn off the color-coded threat ranking due to citizens’ concerns. “It’s a balancing act,” he admitted.
It remains to be seen if Fresno police and residents will move forward with the technology or shut it down over privacy concerns. City officials in Oakland, California, for example, recently scaled back plans to establish a Real Time Crime Center after outraged citizens protested.
At the very least, as Northern California ACLU attorney Matt Cagle said, “[W]henever these surveillance technologies are on the table, there needs to be a meaningful debate. There needs to be safeguards and oversight.”
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