December 12, 2014
A national spotlight is now focused on aggressive law enforcement tactics and the justice system. Today’s professional police forces — where officers in even one-stoplight towns might have body armor and mine-resistant vehicles — already raise concerns.
Yet new data-mining technologies can now provide police with vast amounts of surveillance information and could radically increase police power. Policing can be increasingly targeted at specific people and neighborhoods — with potentially serious inequitable effects.
One speaker at a recent national law enforcement conference compared future police work to Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film set in 2054 Washington, where a “PreCrime” unit has been set up to stop murders before they happen.
While PreCrime remains science-fiction, many technology advances are already involved with predictive policing — identifying risks and threats with the help of online information, powerful computers and Big Data.
New World Systems, for example, now offers software that allows dispatchers to enter in a person’s name to see if they’ve had contact with the police before. Provided crime data, PredPol claims on its website that its software “forecasts highest risk times and places for future crimes.” These and other technologies are supplanting and enhancing traditional police work.
Public safety organizations, using federal funding, are set to begin building a $7-billion nationwide first-responder wireless network, called FirstNet. Money is now being set aside. With this network, information-sharing capabilities and federal-state coordination will likely grow substantially. Some uses of FirstNet will improve traditional services like 911 dispatches. Other law enforcement uses aren’t as pedestrian, however.
One such application is Beware, sold to police departments since 2012 by a private company, Intrado. This mobile application crawls over billions of records in commercial and public databases for law enforcement needs. The application “mines criminal records, Internet chatter and other data to churn out … profiles in real time,” according to one article in an Illinois newspaper.
Here’s how the company describes it on their website:
Accessed through any browser (fixed or mobile) on any Internet-enabled device including tablets, smartphones, laptop and desktop computers, Beware® from Intrado searches, sorts and scores billions of commercial records in a matter of seconds-alerting responders to potentially deadly and dangerous situations while en route to, or at the location of a call.
Crunching all the database information in a matter of seconds, the Beware algorithm then assigns a score and “threat rating” to a person — green, yellow or red. It sends that rating to a requesting officer.
For example, working off a home address, Beware can send an officer basic information about who lives there, their cell phone numbers, whether they have past convictions and the cars registered to the address. Police have had access to this information before, but Beware makes it available immediately.
Yet it does far more — scanning the residents’ online comments, social media and recent purchases for warning signs. Commercial, criminal and social media information, including, as Intrado vice president Steve Reed said in an interview with urgentcomm.com, “any comments that could be construed as offensive,” all contribute to the threat score.
There are many troubling aspects to these programs. There are, of course, obvious risks in outsourcing traditional police work — determining who is a threat — to a proprietary algorithm. Deeming someone a public threat is a serious designation, and applications like Beware may encourage shortcuts and snap decisions.
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