FRESNO, Calif. (April 6, 2016) – The Fresno Police Department’s attempt to purchase controversial Orwellian computer software highlights the role the federal government plays in the acquisition of spy gear by local law enforcement agencies.
Last week, the Fresno City Council rejected Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer’s request to permanently purchase Beware software by a 5-0 vote.
A public safety solutions company called West (originally Intrado) created the software. It taps into a company-created database of billions of pieces of commercially available public information, and combines it with criminal records, along with publicly accessible information from social media. According to a report on ABC30 in Fresno, the software creates a dossier on anybody living at a given address and assigns them a “threat level” of green, yellow or red that is instantly available to officers.
“The company doesn’t like to disclose the calculations behind its index, but in addition to criminal records, social media posts are part of the equation. An Instagram post including ‘#ShootThePolice’…would increase the risk index. But we also found a Fresno woman whose score went up for posting on Twitter about her card game that happens to have ‘rage’ in its title.”
On a creepy side-note, Dyer told ABC30 he’d like the software to also be able to access mental health information. Of course, privacy laws currently preclude inclusion of such data.
The Fresno Police Department got to utilize Beware for a year through a $28,000 U.S. Department of Homeland Security Grant. When details about the software became public, many groups were outraged, according to an article in the Fresno Bee.
“The Beware software generated significant controversy in Fresno earlier this year over its capacity to sift through address-specific public data that can be passed along to first responders, as well as its ability to also comb through individuals’ public postings to social media such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and assign color-coded threat levels based on posts that may indicate a potential danger to responding officers.That feature raised major concerns among pastors on the Faith in Community board, the American Civil Liberties Union and council members themselves, and prompted the Fresno Police Department and Intrado to disable that feature of the software over the last few months of Fresno’s testing period for the program.”
With public sentiment solidly against the software, the council brought this Orwellian experiment to an end.
The lesson – the Fresno P.D. would never have even gotten its hands on Beware software in the first place were it not for federal funding. And the only reason the Fresno City Council was able to end the use of the intrusive software was because the grant was limited to one year. Had Chief Dyer been able to access additional federal funding, he could have possibly extended the contract without the council having any say.
In fact, this happens in cities across the U.S. with all kinds of surveillance gear. The DHS funds the acquisition of software, drones, stingrays, license plate readers and other technology. In many cases, federal dollars allow law enforcement agencies to acquire high-tech surveillance equipment under the radar. Since the agencies don’t have to include the purchases in their budgets, governing bodies often remain unaware that their police departments have even procured this technology.
In some cases, the feds even mandate secrecy.
For instance, the federal government funds the vast majority of state and local stingray programs. The feds require agencies acquiring the technology to sign non-disclosure agreements. This throws a giant shroud over the program, even preventing judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys from getting information about the use of stingrays in court. The feds actually instruct prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported last year, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal non-disclosure agreement.
Federal grants and other funding sources originating in D.C. also encourage information sharing. The feds can tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. And most of it has nothing to do with “national security.”
Despite privacy concerns, public opposition and constitutional questions, state and local law enforcement willingly become cogs in the federal surveillance apparatus, feeding it data and information. The steady stream of federal dollars and high-tech toys make them enthusiastically willing accomplices.
All of the money flowing out of Washington D.C. has essentially federalized state and local law enforcement. Your local cop is addicted federal funding and the power that come from working with federal agencies. As a result, state and local law enforcement put the highest priority on maintaining these “partnerships” at all costs. Powerful state police lobbyists aggressively resist any attempt to rein in overreaching federal policies in order to “preserve these important relationships.”
Fresno’s experience should serve as both a warning and a lesson. This kind of surveillance technology will inevitably become more prevalent. But public pressure coupled with state and local government action can stop its spread into your community.
It is imperative that states, counties and cities pass laws and ordinances limiting the acquisition and use of intrusive surveillance technology. They must also require transparency. Police departments should not be able to purchase such equipment, accept federal grants or otherwise acquire such technology without the approval of electorally accountable bodies. Without limits, police will continue to obtain and use spy gear that would make Big Brother drool.