Police in the United States are increasingly using a “scoring” technique to assess citizens’ potential threat levels, with critics of the assessment methodology seeing little difference between them and police in communist China.
As reported by the Washington Post, a recent scenario that played out in Fresno, Calif., is indicative of just how pervasive America’s police state mentality has become, and in an era when the nation is still reeling from the discovery of massive warrantless surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
The Post noted:
While officers raced to a recent 911 call about a man threatening his ex-girlfriend, a police operator in headquarters consulted software that scored the suspect’s potential for violence the way a bank might run a credit report.
The program scoured billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and the man’s social- media postings. It calculated his threat level as the highest of three color-coded scores: a bright red warning.
’It’s for your own good’
The data center produced information indicating the suspect had a firearm conviction and had been associated with gangs – information of this kind that has been available to police departments for decades.
The man surrendered to police upon their arrival, and officers credited the intelligence when helping to make the right call; turns out he had a firearm.
However, it’s the accessing of social media and other data by police – again, without first obtaining a warrant, as the Fourth Amendment requires – that is alarming civil libertarians.
That doesn’t seem to matter, however. As the debate over NSA surveillance continues, a new generation of technology like the Beware software (even the name is ominous) that the Fresno P.D. uses is spreading to departments around the country, giving them “unprecedented power to peer into the lives of citizens,” the Post reported.
As you might have expected, police are defending their use of such technology as an important tool that can assist them in identifying terrorists and potential mass shooters. They also claim the technology better protects officers and the public, and can help locate suspects and break open cases. And departments in California, especially, claim the technology is even more important following the San Bernardino attacks.
But authorities’say that “this is for the good of the community” mentality is always the standard excuse for what becomes a blatant violation of constitutional privacy and due process rights, and frankly are no different than the arguments the federal government was using to justify the NSA’s mass surveillance.
Civil libertarians, the Post noted, are disputing the justifications, saying that they not only violate privacy but are being implemented without public oversight. Also, they say the potential for abuse or error is extremely high, meaning that laws ought to be implemented to better protect the public.
Surveillance and data-processing has to be constitutional
As the Post noted further:
In many instances, people have been unaware that the police around them are sweeping up information, and that has spawned controversy. Planes outfitted with cameras filmed protests and unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. For years, dozens of departments used devices that can hoover up all cellphone data in an area without search warrants. Authorities in Oregon are facing an internal investigation after using social media-monitoring software to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter hashtags.
“This is something that’s been building since September 11,” states Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends privacy in the Internet age. “First funding went to the military to develop this technology, and now it has come back to domestic law enforcement. It’s the perfect storm of cheaper and easier-to-use technologies and money from state and federal governments to purchase it.”
Not many departments are willing to discuss whether they are using such technology, and that in itself is even more troubling.
Most Americans would agree that we should do all that is possible to protect and inform our police, but such measures must pass constitutional muster. Otherwise there is little difference between our republic and the communist and authoritarian regimes the world over.