As officers respond to calls, Beware automatically runs the address. The searches return the names of residents and scans them against a range of publicly available data to generate a color-coded threat level for each person or address: green, yellow or red. Exactly how Beware calculates threat scores is something that its maker, Intrado, considers a trade secret. The program flags issues and provides a report to the user.
Rob Nabarro, a civil rights lawyer, said he is particularly concerned about Beware. He said outsourcing decisions about the threat posed by an individual to software is a problem waiting to happen.
Nabarro said the fact that only Intrado — not the police or the public — knows how Beware tallies its scores is disconcerting. He also worries that the system might mistakenly increase someone’s threat level by misinterpreting innocuous activity on social media, like criticizing the police, and trigger a heavier response by officers.
“It’s a very unrefined, gross technique,” Nabarro said of Beware’s color-coded levels. “A police call is something that can be very dangerous for a citizen.” For examle, a woman’s threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled “Rage,” which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media.
Councilman Clinton J. Olivier, a libertarian-leaning Republican, discovered his home came back as a yellow, because of someone who previously lived at his address, a police official said. “Even though it’s not me that’s the yellow guy, officers are going to treat whoever comes out of that house as the yellow guy”
The number of local police departments that employ some type of technological surveillance increased from 20 percent in 1997 to more than 90 percent in 2013, according to the latest information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The most common forms of surveillance are cameras and automated license plate readers, but the use of handheld biometric scanners, social media monitoring software, devices that collect cellphone data and drones is increasing.
Locally, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that police in the District, Baltimore, and Montgomery and Fairfax counties have cellphone-data collectors, called cell site simulators or StingRays. D.C. police are also using ShotSpotter and license plate readers.
The surveillance creates vast amounts of data, which is increasingly pooled in local, regional and national databases. The largest such project is the FBI’s $1 billion Next Generation Identification project, which is creating a trove of fingerprints, iris scans, data from facial recognition software and other sources that aid local departments in identifying suspects.