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New software like "Beware" calculates a "threat score" using metadata, which critics say threatens civil liberties and privacy rights. (Photo: Jeffrey Smith/flickr/cc)

Metadata Comes Home With New 'Threat Score' Policing Tools

Law enforcement agencies rolling out technology that lets them dig into metadata to determine a citizen's potential for violence

Nadia Prupis

Police in the U.S. are rolling out new technology that gives them "unprecedented" power to spy on citizens and determine their "threat score" based on metadata, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Fresno, California's police department was one of the first to adopt the software, known as "Beware," which allows officers to analyze "billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and...social-media postings" to calculate an individual's alleged potential for violence, the Post explained.

Officers say the tool, made by a company called Intrado, can help them thwart mass shootings and other attacks like the ones that took place in Paris and San Bernardino last year. But critics say it's just another weapon in the mass surveillance arsenal, one that further threatens privacy and civil liberties and fuels police overreach.

Journalist D. Brian Burghart, who operates FatalEncounters.org, a searchable database of police killings of citizens, told Common Dreams that the swell of surveillance technology was an "outgrowth" of post-9/11 fear-mongering. "I'm not sure what's new about this except they put a name on it," Burghart said. "I don't think it's going to get any better. Nobody ever puts away technology."

Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, 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."

Rob Nabarro, a civil rights lawyer in Fresno, added, "It’s a very unrefined, gross technique. A police call is something that can be very dangerous for a citizen."

The Post continues:

Nabarro said the fact that only Intrado — not the police or the public — knows how Beware tallies its scores is disconcerting. He also worries that the system might mistakenly increase someone’s threat level by misinterpreting innocuous activity on social media, like criticizing the police, and trigger a heavier response by officers.

A potential threat that comes from an individual should not be addressed by a machine, he said.

In addition to Beware, police departments are equipping officers with tools like Media Sonar, which analyzes social media for "illicit activity," among other technology, the Post reported.

Others criticized the implementation of such law enforcement tools while police brutality remains widespread and activists continue to call for an overhaul of the policing system.

Matt Cagle, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, told the Post, "We think that whenever these surveillance technologies are on the table, there needs to be a meaningful debate. There needs to be safeguards and oversight."

The Post described one incident in which the Fresno police department demonstrated Beware at a town hall meeting following constituent complaints about the use of invasive surveillance technology:

[One] council member referred to a local media report saying that a woman’s threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled “Rage,” which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media.

Councilman Clinton J. Olivier, a libertarian-leaning Republican, said Beware was like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel and asked [Fresno Chief of Police Jerry] Dyer a simple question: “Could you run my threat level now?” 

Dyer agreed. The scan returned Olivier as a green, but his home came back as a yellow, possibly because of someone who previously lived at his address, a police official said.

"[Beware] has failed right here with a council member as the example," Olivier said.

As Burghart added, "I spend eight hours a day researching police violence, so I don't know how many times I've typed the words 'police killed.' I imagine I'd probably score pretty good on this thing. Most journalists would."


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