California police are using high-tech surveillance software to quickly determine a person’s threat level based off of public records and social media posts before an officer is ever dispatched to a crime scene.
The electronic surveillance software scours billions of data points in the span of seconds and is being used by law enforcement in Fresno, California.
A year after the Fresno Police Department began using high-tech tools to combat crime in a city of 500,000, the scope of the force’s sophisticated suite of spy gear was outlined in a Washington Post article published on Sunday after reporters got a rare glimpse at the $600,000 state-of-the-art surveillance center in the San Joaquin Valley and a sampling of its capabilities.
At Fresno’s Real Time Crime Center, the walls hold dozens of television monitors designed to let officers view video feeds from any of the 1,000 or so police, school and traffic cameras across town. That system is linked to a database containing the details of more than 2 billion license plates, and a network of microphones has been constructed to give police location details within a moment of detecting gunshots.
Yet while police across the board have embraced high-tech crime tools in increasing numbers as of late — the Bureau of Justice Statistics says computer-aided surveillance is now used by 90 percent of local departments, up from 20 percent in 1997 — proprietary trade secrets have largely kept one of Fresno’s most powerful surveillance programs under wraps.
Operating in tandem with a network of license plate readers, gunshot detectors and surveillance cameras is “Beware,” the threat-scoring software that authorities in Fresno and elsewhere are using in lieu of sending officers to crime scenes ill-prepared for potential problems.
“It is designed to access automatically various databases that are really public domain type databases where anyone can access that information,” Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer told KSEE News in November. “All of those things that would allow the officer in the field to be more knowledgeable about what they’re dealing with.”
Although Chief Dyer told KSEE two months ago that he was unaware if the program examined a person’s social media connections, The Post reported over the weekend that the surveillance software indeed does just that, and then some.
“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 Post reported.
Intrado, the company behind the software, hasn’t publicly disclosed how its algorithms determine an individual’s threat level, but promotional materials cited by The Post claims the software can scan a person’s address and within seconds return information including any past criminal convictions, military status and whether a person “had posted worrisome messages” on social media.
“To the extent that there is information that is in the public domain, regardless of where the input was derived, it could potentially be surfaced through a Beware query,” Allen Carr, vice president of Intrado, told Fresno’s KFSN News in February after the city began a free 18-month trial of the software.
“Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen” Mr. Dyer told The Post this week. “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.”
Indeed, other cities have followed suit. New York, Houston and Seattle have all erected similar crime-monitoring centers where police rely on high-tech spy tools that operate in real time, albeit in the face of privacy advocates who are urging lawmakers to consider the consequences of establishing a powerful infrastructure without adequate public input.
“This kind of surveillance can place people under suspicion simply for speaking their mind online,” Matt Cagle, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said last month of Fresno’s social media monitoring.
“The community should have a chance to discuss and weigh the costs to civil liberties and costs to taxpayers before their elected leaders make a decision to move forward or not on these technologies,” he said. “We shouldn’t just be learning about these software programs right now.”