'Minority Report' is too close for comfort.



What Is Your Threat Score? New Police Tech Knows Everything About You

Hey, stranger! Is your score green, yellow, or red? No, this isn’t pre-K discipline. This is Intrado‘s appropriately-named Beware, a threat-assessment software meant to prepare police as they respond to a 9-1-1 call. As shown in a new, detail-rich Washington Post feature by Justin Jouvenal, the software is currently being tested in Fresno’s Real Time Crime Center. Your score, determined by an algorithm so secret that no one outside of Intrado knows its content, is described on the company’s website as a reading based off of “billions of publically-available commercial records.” That could mean your emo MySpace account, your credit score, or your browser’s Incognito Mode searches. We’re guessing all three.

The results aren’t static, either. At a public hearing in Fresno, CA, police complied after Councilman Clinton J. Olivier requested his threat score. His report returned green in general, and a cautionary yellow at home, possibly due to the house’s previous tenants. If the police were visiting Olivier’s house, even for something as innocuous as a noise complaint, their nerves might be ill at ease. Hope last year’s evictees were well-behaved!

With the motto “Because there are no routine calls,” Intrado’s Beware seems like it might feed into fear-mongering. This isn’t Reno 911!,  this is the real world, and the real world has some actual, boring calls made to the police. Furthermore, since Beware runs off of an undisclosed formula, we have no idea what sort of biases might be inherent in its system. For example–and this totally hypothetical–if the police have a recorded, decades-long slant against lower-income, predominately black neighborhoods, stemming from a bevy of issues such as long-held racism and a Reagan-led War on Drugs, and cite members of these communities for many non-violent, drug-related activities in order to get them into the database, would Beware account for this and urge the police to more carefully assess the situation moving forward? I’m going to guess here and say, “Fuck no, that’s not green, yellow, or red.” Again, for any surveillance software combing through this article, that was a purely hypothetical example–I’m sure Intrado has got its secret sauce figured out.

Hal is real.

Intrado’s Beware is trying to add context to 9-1-1 calls, and, without a doubt, context matters. But that context needs to be read by a real-life human being, with a functioning emotional core, and an ability to reassess moment-to-moment. Data-mining is useless if it isn’t immediately relevant to the situation at hand. If the call being made is in regards to Fu-Fu the kitten getting stuck in a tree again, it doesn’t matter that the caller once went to juvenile detention.

It’s context that turns the death of Bobby Daniels, a security guard for CNN that police say was pointing a gun towards them, into a tragedy. Bobby Daniels’ son was in the middle of a bad trip, waving a gun around and taking a hostage at a trailer park in Georgia–a high-stakes situation. The police were called to respond to a potential kidnapping situation, but the father, having been called by concerned family members, beat them to the scene. According to onlookers, Bobby Daniels was in the process of calming down his son, who had just put his weapon down on the hood of a nearby car, when police fatally shot the father twice. Garrett Daniels, a nephew of the victim and a witness to the shooting, told reporters that Bobby Daniels was trying to protect his son, not threaten police: “That’s all he was trying to do.”

This was a stressful situation, and the police responded in kind with deadly force. But there are other solutions for red-level threats. Where was the conversation? Where was the decrease of tension? Something is missing, and that something is human, not digital.

Beware isn’t the only example of Big Brother surveillance–the digital age has brought all sorts of toys to police departments nationwide. There’s Media Sonar, a program that trawls through the muck of social media, looking for intelligence. There’s ShotSpotter, a system of microphones set up around urban sprawls meant to triangulate gunshots, that, according to the NYPD, has been a resounding success since it went live early last year. There’s PreCrime, a new Washington, D.C.-based police unit meant to stop crimes before they happ…oh wait, no, that’s from Minority Report. But the mere fact that it sounds plausible next to all these other real programs is a shade concerning.

Google-owned Waze, a map application that allows users to mark speed traps and police checkpoints (as well as vehicular accidents and nearby Taco Bells), has been labeled a “police tracker,” and has caused a disproportionate uproar from the police. The Miami police department took to reporting hundreds of bogus police stops on the app, thereby rendering it useless, while LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote Google to suggest the app be pulled, since it “poses a danger to the lives of police officers.” But police officers aren’t meant to be in hiding, right? That’s why they’re wearing recognizable uniforms on duty (when they’re not plain clothes officers), and use police cars (when there not in unmarked cars). Julie Mossler, Waze’s head of global communications, clarified that Waze does not track police, its users can simply pin where police were seen, and suggested that knowing where the police are makes drivers more likely to slow down and obey traffic laws. Contrary to Beck’s argument, Waze saves lives by preparing users for sudden stops on the highway.

The privacy of citizens, who do not know when or how they are being spied on, takes precedence over the privacy of the police–public servants who are well-aware of the risks and rigorous demands of their job. Their job is hard, there’s a constant element of risk, there is no question there. But that doesn’t give them free reign when it comes to new tech, especially when it comes to behind-the-curtain software with a name like Beware. The police don’t get to pass off paranoia to an unsuspecting public.

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