Police departments across the United States are now using a program that mines Internet comments and social media posts to determine the “threat score” of a suspect before cops arrive on the scene.
Reuters reports that law enforcement authorities have utilized an application called Beware since 2012 that takes just seconds to crawl billions of records in commercial and public databases to assign a threat rating to an individual – green, yellow or red.
“Yet it does far more — scanning the residents’ online comments, social media and recent purchases for warning signs. Commercial, criminal and social media information, including, as Intrado vice president Steve Reed said in an interview with urgentcomm.com, “any comments that could be construed as offensive,” all contribute to the threat score.”
The program also “allows the routine code enforcement of a nanny state,” allowing homeowners who have failed to trim their trees to be targeted, as well as being used for fishing expeditions and revenue generation.
An annual subscription to Beware costs police departments around $36,000 dollars a year, the majority of which is covered by federal grants. The program represents another step towards “predictive policing,” with the report noting that one recent speaker at a national law enforcement conference “compared future police work to Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film set in 2054 Washington, where a “PreCrime” unit has been set up to stop murders before they happen.”
The report notes that the program could also produce any number of false positives if the system has failed to update who lives at a particular residence, potentially transforming, “a green rating into a red rating — turning a midday knock on the front door into a nighttime SWAT raid.”
Given that any number of different comments made online in the heat of the moment could be “construed as offensive” to someone yet not indicate that a person is violent at all, this program should alarm civil liberties advocates.
There are innumerable stories of police overreacting to social media posts, while the most shocking stories revolve around people being harassed for sharing strong political opinions.
In 2012, former Marine Brandon Raub was kidnapped from his home by police, FBI and Secret Service agents and forcibly incarcerated in a psychiatric ward by authorities in Virginia in response to Facebook posts which the FBI deemed “terrorist” in nature.
In reality, Raub’s posts, which included rhetoric about ‘taking the Republic back’, were tame in comparison to actual instances of terrorist propaganda and referenced figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.