Police score threat level with surveillance software

Getty Images

Police departments are using a software program to calculate a suspect’s potential threat level, similar to running a credit score, according to The Washington Post.

Although many departments are reluctant to discuss whether they use such tools, one version used in Fresno, Calif., creates color-coded scores based on billions of data points, including arrest reports, commercial databases, Web searches and social media postings.

It's not clear how widespread the use of the software is. Police officials say such software can help ensure the safety of officers, find suspects and even prevent terrorist attacks or mass shootings.

But privacy advocates warn that these tools have been implemented with little to no public oversight and open up the possibility for abuse or error.

Exactly how the Beware software used in Fresno calculates its scores is something that the maker, Intrado, considers a trade secret — leaving some civil rights advocates concerned that police could be relying on faulty information.

Beware might misinterpret harmless postings on social media, for example, and influence an officer’s response.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer dismissed such concerns, saying that officers on the street never see the scores and that they are instead used by operators to guide deeper investigation into a suspect.

“Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen,” Dyer told the Post. “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.”

The dispute over Beware and similar programs is part of a larger debate over the extent of police surveillance. Although cameras and automatic license plate readers are still the most common forms of police surveillance, the use of other forms of monitoring software is on the rise.

Privacy and civil rights advocates are concerned that such tools are being used without the appropriate oversight to safeguard civil liberties.

On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are pushing back on the use of controversial cellphone-tracking technology called Stingrays, which mimic cellphone towers to pick up identifying waves from people’s phones that contain information about their contacts, text messages and other data.

Critics of the devices warn they can hoover up data from unsuspecting citizens who are not being targeted by law enforcement.

“The fact that law enforcement agencies, and non-law enforcement agencies such as the IRS, have invested in these devices raises serious questions about who is using this technology and why,” Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse panel tells fed agency to stop selling recalled cars Trump's big worry isn't rigged elections, it's GOP establishment State pushes back on GOP calls for 'quid pro quo' investigation MORE (R-Utah) said in November, when he introduced a bill to require a warrant to use the technology.

“These questions demonstrate the need for strict guidelines that carry the weight of the law,” he said.