Police Assess Threats By Relying on a new system: the Threat Score

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

January 14, 2016

Score another victory for law enforcement over individual privacy! Or should I say, the ’’score”, as in “Threat Score”, a new weapon for police which is either a bonanza in their arsenal for fighting crime, or another stain on personal liberty. The Threat Score is the latest tool available to police, joining drones, license plate readers, and the infamous Stingray devices, in the armory. Depending on where you stand on the issue of privacy will dictate how you digest the latest news.


Just how does it work? To arrive at a baseline number for the score, the police scour billions of bits of data, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, potential miscreant’s deep Web searches and social media postings. Armed with this information, they can then make an assessment of the threat they are facing before they come on the scene of an incident, thereby (perhaps) mitigating harm to police, perpetrator, or property. So, while the police say such tools can provide critical information to help uncover terrorists or thwart mass shootings, find suspects, and crack open cases, personal freedom advocates cringe.

This, at first glance, may sound like an appealing advance to combat crime. But privacy activists are not sure it passes muster – the smell test. Lack of oversight is also troubling, as is the absence of judicial interaction on the use of such data against a possibly innocent civilians. Is this new protocol, which uses the new Beware software just another bullet in the government’s mass surveillance gun, rather than a necessary crime-fighting tool? After reading further about how one locale is addressing criminal activity, you can judge these program’s efficacy as well as their propriety.

Law enforcement has typically kept a lid on its crime-fighting capabilities, for fear that criminals may grasp what is happening, adjust their tactics, and thwart police efforts. But one jurisdiction, Fresno, CA, was more forthcoming in allowing a peek at their efforts to staunch crime. The $600,000 cutting- edge Real Time Crime Center is the type of facility that has become the model for high-tech policing nationwide. Similar centers have opened in New York, Houston and Seattle over the past decade.

Fielding more than 1200 911 calls a day, this city of roughly 500,000 citizens can keep abreast of things via 200 CCTV cameras throughout the city that beam images to nearly 60 monitors in police HQ. Adding to the live coverage are the 400 on-body cameras worn by the patrol officers. But cameras are not the only tools pressed into action that add to effectiveness, but also raises alarms for privacy lovers.

Fresno PD can draw on a reservoir of some 2 billion license plate scans to enhance their efforts, and the ShotSpotter technology to gauge the location of gunshots using microphones placed around the city for triangulation of the shooting incident. Another program, called Media Sonar, trawled social media to uncover illicit activity. Police used it to monitor individuals, threats to schools and hashtags related to gangs. All these efforts seem worthwhile, but it is the Threat Score technology, Beware, which is the most controversial and hence has raised activists hackles. Beware automatically runs the address, even as police are responding to an incident,

“The searches return the names of residents and scan them against a range of publicly available data to generate a color-coded threat level for each person or address: green, yellow or red. However, just as with the notorious Stingray technology, the maker, in this case, Intrado, is not divulging details on how deeply it delves into a suspect’s background to calculate the Threat Score.

Could this opposition be because Beware infringes on constitutional privacy guarantees? There are concerns that the system might mistakenly increase someone’s threat level by misinterpreting innocuous activity on social media, such as criticizing the police, and trigger a heavier response by officers. Also worrisome to many is the magnitude of concentrated surveillance apparatus. Still others worry that since any such scanning will rely on key words, it can misconstrue information gleaned. One such incident involved a woman’s threat level being elevated, and thus the threat being exaggerated ,because she was tweeting about a card game titled “Rage,” which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media.

This program is just the latest means by which law enforcement has ratcheted-up its surveillance capabilities. In the last 20 years, the number of Police Departmnet’s using advanced technology has grown from 20 percent to 90 percent. Police say new tech allows them to do more with less. That is true, and even commendable, but something is awry… backward. The debate about these gadgets should not be held only after they have been employed in the field. The discussions should predate their deployment. Only then will personal privacy advocates be playing on a level playing field, and their voices more heard.

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