Compliance Management, Incident Response, Privacy, TDR

Fresno police use ‘threat scores’ to surveil public

The Fresno Police Department is currently conducting a trial run of a controversial third-party technology used to profile citizens and assign "threat scores" based on their potential threat levels.

The department is one of the few in the country to use "Beware," a program made by West Safety Services that is capable of quickly sorting through billions of publicly available commercial records to alert first responders to potentially dangerous situations, according to the product website. Beware calculates “threat scores” by assigning people and addresses green, yellow, or red scores with red being highest threat and green being the safest.

The product is reportedly able to alert an officer if someone had been convicted of assault, is a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or if they had posted troubling messages to their social media.

City officials and privacy activists alike have taken issue with the department's use of the product because the algorithm used to classify the threats is considered proprietary information and isn't available to the police department or the public.

Jennifer Lynch Senior Staff Attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told that if the law enforcement is using the tool to determine someone's risk level based on social media comments then it is a violation of the First Amendment. 

Lynch went on to say that because the rating algorithm is kept secret there is no way to know if someone's rating could go up because they joked about the IRS auditing them or mentioning a video game "Rage."

Fresno Councilman Clinton J. Olivier told that he plans to fight any proposals to purchase the technology after the trial period.

The councilman asked to be profiled by the technology at a city council meeting in November, 2015 that discussed the police department's use of the program. He was given a green score but his house was given a yellow score, though this was likely due to previous residents, the councilman said the system had already failed on him.

“I don't like it when the government collects information on people,” Olivier said as he expressed concern for the reliability of the software adding that it must be difficult to maintain current information with so many people moving in, out, and around one of the largest cities in the state.

The councilman said he is planning to speak with other city councilmen in other municipalities to discourage them from considering the technology in their police departments.

Fresno Chief of Police Jerry Dyer told the Washington Post that the concerns about the technology are overblown and said the scores don't trigger a particular police response and instead are used to provide more background information on someone. Dyer went on to say that officers on the street never see the scores.

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