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Did you know you have a Facebook “threat score” in a government database?

February 18, 2016
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Beware!

Social media sites are turning out to be some of Big Brother’s biggest collaborators.

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Officers at the Fresno, California Police Department are using a controversial new software called Beware. When officers receive a call, the caller’s address or a suspect’s name is entered into Beware, which provides a color-coded “threat score.” Although Beware’s maker, Intrado, won’t disclose exactly how the threat score is calculated, we know that it includes information from arrest reports, databases, web searches, and yes, even social media posts.

Better prepared and informed

Proponents of Beware say that this technology can help police thwart crimes before they happen, and can better prepare officers to responds appropriately to calls. “Our officers are expected to know the unknown and see the unseen,” said Fresno chief of police Jerry Dyer said. “They are making split-second decisions based on limited facts. The more you can provide in terms of intelligence… the more safely you can respond to calls.”

Concern over invasion of privacy

Many, however, are concerned that Beware, and other surveillance technologies in increasing use by police, are an invasion of privacy.

Overuse of surveillance, especially of social media, has already gotten other police departments into trouble. There’s currently an ongoing internal investigation in Oregon after the police monitored social media to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter activists.

High threat levels dangerous for civilians

Because Intrado won’t say how Beware works, it’s hard to tell to what extent people and households could trigger a higher threat level through innocuous and perfectly legal activities.

For example, local media in Fresno reported that one woman’s threat score was very high because she was tweeting about a card game called “Rage.”

Critics are also concerned that Beware’s technology could make police calls more dangerous for civilians. Rob Nabarro, Fresno civil rights lawyer, called Beware “a very unrefined, gross technique.” He’s concerned that someone who Beware identifies as a “red” level threat could be treated more brutally by the police – no small concern, considering how much attention the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the ongoing problem of racialized police violence.

Eliminating color coding

A city council meeting was held in November to review the use of Beware technology. Skeptical council member Clinton J. Olivier asked Dyer to run his threat score. He came back as a green, but his house was declared a yellow-level threat, possibly because of the activities of the previous owner. Said Olivier, “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,” Olivier said. “That may not be fair to me.”

After the controversy at the city council meeting, Dyer is working to eliminate the color-coding from Beware’s software, and possibly the social media monitoring as well.

Nonetheless, the use of Beware points to a disturbing trend in law enforcement – the use of advanced surveillance technologies without a warrant, and without public oversight.

#BewareThreatScore

Ellen Vessels, Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for her wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when she's not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.

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