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Beware: Surveillance software police are using to score citizens’ threat level

Jan 11, 20164 mins
Data and Information SecuritySecurity

High-tech is increasingly used by police departments, but some have gone so far as surveilling citizens via Beware software that calculates a citizen’s threat score.

High-tech is increasingly used by police departments, but some have gone so far as surveilling citizens via software that calculates a citizen’s threat score.

Intrado, the company behind the threat-scoring software, says Beware “sorts and scores billions of publicly-available commercial records in a matter of seconds – alerting responders to potentially dangerous situations while en route to, or at the location of, a 9-1-1 request for assistance.”

In much the same way as the Harris Corporation keeps the lid tightly sealed on the details of its Stingray cell-site simulators and trackers, Intrado considers the how’s of Beware calculating threat scores to be a “trade secret.” However the Washington Post said the program scours “billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches” as well as a citizen’s “social- media postings.” The calculated threat level is color-coded with green, yellow or red as the highest warning.

The Washington Post visited the Fresno Police Department’s $600,000 Real Time Crime Center where Beware is being used. The Post reported:

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.

While it’s not quite Minority Report‘s precrime ball rolling down a chute, Beware calculated a man threatening his ex-girlfriend as a red dangerous threat. The Post said Beware “scored the suspect’s potential for violence the way a bank might run a credit report.” He ended up having a gun…but that doesn’t mean all threat-scoring would be right.

It’s unknown how widely the controversial Beware program is being used, but privacy and civil rights activists point out the dangers of not knowing how the software works, such as how much a Facebook post or tweet might impact a threat-score, and that police are using it without appropriate oversight.

EFF senior staff attorney Jennifer Lynch told The Post, “This is something that’s been building since September 11. 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.”

Although Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer pushed backed against such concerns, the Fresno City Council previously raised concerns of how an innocuous tweet about a game called “Rage” could be misconstrued by the software. But it’s not just potential keywords triggering a false threat-level as Councilman Clinton Olivier found out after his threat level was run. It showed his threat level as yellow, the intermediate threat score color, due to his home address and the former 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,” Oliver said. “That may not be fair to me.” The Post noted that Oliver later stated, “[Beware] has failed right here with a council member as the example.”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.