The police department in Fresno, California has begun implementing a new technology that, in addition to looking at arrest reports and property records, uses content from social media postings to calculate an individual’s “threat score.”
According to a report from the Washington Post, when Fresno police received a 911 call about a man threatening his ex-girlfriend, they consulted the “Beware” software, which “scoured billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and the man’s social media postings.”
The software search found that the man had both a “firearm conviction” and a “gang association,” which put his “threat level” at the highest of three possible color-coded scores.
The Post noted that while police officials claim that the software 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,” privacy advocates argue that the tools are a “troubling intrusion on privacy, have been deployed with little public oversight and have potential for abuse or error.”
In Dec. 2014, Derek Smith, the Director of Cybersecurity Initiatives at the National Cybersecurity Institute at Excelsior College, said that while similar technology has been available in the past, the Beware software is much more efficient. However, he noted that it is not able to judge the intent of an individual based off of the information it gathers.
“It’s trying to forecast based on maybe your past behavior, or what is seen in your social media – a change in behavior or a change in the things you’re posting about,” Smith said. “They say ‘maybe this person is going to perpetrate a crime in the future,’ and then they want prevention from police officers.”
Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Post that this technology has been in progress since 9/11, and that both state and federal governments are funding it.
“This is something that’s been building since September 11,” Lynch said. “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.”
The Post reported that Fresno’s police department is one of the first in the country to test the Beware software, which is housed in a “Real Time Crime Center” which cost an estimated $600,000.