Be­ware be Gone

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Fresno says no to Be­ware soft­ware threat as­sess­ments of res­i­dents

Thanks to some clear-think­ing mem­bers of its City Coun­cil, res­i­dents of Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia can breathe a lit­tle eas­ier when there is a knock on their door and worry less about be­ing surveilled, ha­rassed, in­ter­ro­gated, and bru­tal­ized by their lo­cal cops be­cause of some­thing they might have posted on­line or a file they down­loaded.

The is­sue in­volved a pro­posal put forth to the coun­cil by its po­lice chief Jerry Dyer. The idea was to use $28,000 from a U.S. De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity grant to con­tinue the use of soft­ware called Be­ware, de­vel­oped by West Cor­po­ra­tion, a public safety so­lu­tions com­pany.

If it were just a video game for chil­dren, Be­ware would be far less in­sid­i­ous. But what this soft­ware does is con­nect to­gether ma­jor data­bases, one cre­ated by the soft­ware de­vel­oper that in­cludes bil­lions of snip­pets of com­mer­cially-avail­able public in­for­ma­tion, the sec­ond a set of pub­licly-ac­ces­si­ble post­ings from so­cial me­dia such as Face­book or Twit­ter, and the third is a city, county, or other re­gional on­line crim­i­nal records re­port.

Then Be­ware eval­u­ates the data, passes judge­ment on each per­son and as­signs them a ‘threat level’ of green, yel­low or red. That in­for­ma­tion is pro­vided to po­lice of­fi­cers who can in­stantly ac­cess it from any­where.

The premise be­hind the soft­ware is that it will give cops an idea of who they are go­ing up against be­fore ap­proach­ing them so that they can de­ter­mine the level of force and cau­tion that should be de­ployed.

Ac­cord­ing to Po­lice Chief Jerry Dyer, “Our of­fi­cers are ex­pected to know the un­known and see the un­seen. They are mak­ing split-sec­ond de­ci­sions based on lim­ited facts. The more [we] can pro­vide in terms of in­tel­li­gence … the more safely [we] can re­spond to calls.”

On the sur­face this doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But, the prob­lem is that the ac­cu­racy of the in­for­ma­tion is ques­tion­able, vi­o­lates the pri­vacy of cit­i­zens and the right to due process and could be used to jus­tify the use of greater force than called for. Po­lice bru­tal­ity is al­ready at a level when it should be a na­tional emer­gency.

What is scary about this is not the sift­ing of in­for­ma­tion, but how it would be used. It is un­der­stand­able that if one were to threaten a public of­fi­cial in a public post that po­lice would right­fully be con­cerned and in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther. But Be­ware parses words more finely and is far more prone to er­ror. In one ex­am­ple that was part of a test of the soft­ware, a post a Fresno woman made about a card game that in­cluded the world ‘rage’ was flagged as a higher risk than some­one just play­ing bridge.

Other ex­am­ples of how the same in­for­ma­tion might be mis­used sug­gest how bad things could get and how quickly. In a pub­licly-avail­able chat or post, some­one might com­ment about want­ing to punch some­one and have it con­sid­ered a real threat rather than some­one just blow­ing off steam. An­other might make ref­er­ence to a ‘bomb­ing’ planned for their house when it was ac­tu­ally a bug-bomb pes­ti­cide can they were set­ting off to kill in­sects. There are also all sorts of slang words which could be mis­un­der­stood out of con­text.

There are count­less ex­am­ples of au­thor­i­ties mis­in­ter­pret­ing ev­ery-day so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and hu­man ex­pres­sions and grossly over-re­act­ing.

Ev­ery­thing you say can and will be used against you is only sup­posed to ap­ply af­ter one has been ar­rested - which is sup­posed to oc­cur only af­ter ev­i­dence of law­break­ing has been pre­sented and a war­rant is­sued, or one is caught break­ing the law. We are sup­posed to be pre­sumed to be in­no­cent un­til a jury of our peers de­ter­mines oth­er­wise in a court of law.

In the dig­i­tal age, most peo­ple are ex­press­ing them­selves in ways that can be eas­ily recorded and an­a­lyzed. It is now pos­si­ble to make pre­sump­tions about

what kind of per­son some­one is by their on­line ac­tiv­ity.

Most Face­book­ers, Tweet­ers and Email­ers don’t re­al­ize that ev­ery­thing they trans­mit on­line, web­sites vis­ited and what they buy off­line can be recorded, an­a­lyzed, com­bined with other data and used to pro­file them, pre­dict fu­ture be­hav­ior, pass judge­ment on them and in some cases pe­nal­ize them - all with­out their knowl­edge or con­sent.

Based on doc­u­ments from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment dis­sem­i­nated to state and lo­cal law en­force­ment, the per­spec­tive of the United States De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity and its sub-agen­cies is that any­one who ex­presses out­rage at in­jus­tice or cru­elty, who sup­ports the ideals em­bod­ied in the Con­sti­tu­tion, be­lieves that the en­vi­ron­ment should be pro­tected or vig­or­ously op­poses gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion is a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist. So, ba­si­cally if you are a de­cent and some­what aware per­son, the gov­ern­ment could con­sider you a po­ten­tial threat.

If we can’t trust our gov­ern­ment should we give them more power?

At the same time, we need our po­lice. We need them to en­force sane laws justly while re­spect­ing the rights of all. In or­der to do their job, cops need to feel that they are rea­son­ably safe. The more fear­ful a cop be­comes the more dan­ger­ous they are and Fresno cops have plenty of rea­son to be afraid.

Fresno is a city of ap­prox. 500,000 peo­ple and its po­lice de­part­ment re­ceives an aver­age of twelve-hun­dred 911 calls ev­ery day. The more in­for­ma­tion an of­fi­cer has when re­spond­ing to a 911 call, the more they can re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately and maybe the bet­ter they can pri­or­i­tize calls. But can they be trusted to uti­lize in­for­ma­tion re­spon­si­bly?

Like many city po­lice de­part­ments, Fresno’s has a long his­tory of cor­rup­tion. Some of the more re­cent charges may in­di­cate what the city’s po­lice are ca­pa­ble of and how Be­ware could be used against res­i­dents.

On Jan­uary 15th this year, Fresno ac­tivist John Lang con­tacted ABC30 Re­porter Colin Hog­gard via Face­book and told him “Cor­rupt Fresno Cops are go­ing to try to kill me this week­end, pos­si­bly tonight.”

On Jan­uary 20th, John Lang was dead and his house on fire. The of­fi­cial au­topsy did not de­ter­mine if it was the mul­ti­ple stab wounds or house fire which killed him.

It is pos­si­ble that John Lang some­how killed him­self by stab­bing him­self in the back af­ter set­ting his house on fire, that he was para­noid and that his doc­u­men­ta­tion of ha­rass­ment and cor­rup­tion by Fresno po­lice is just cir­cum­stan­tial. Fresno is home to many men­tally ill peo­ple. How­ever, there are other cases that in­di­cate that Fresno po­lice might abuse info. from Be­ware.

In 2015, Fresno’s deputy po­lice chief Keith Fos­ter and Jerry Dyer’s num­ber two for eight years and six others were in­dicted for dis­tribut­ing heroin and other drugs.

Also in 2015, for­mer de­tec­tive Derik Ku­ma­gai plead guilty to ac­cept­ing a $20,000 bribe from sus­pected drug traf­fick­ers. The case in­volved eleven other mem­bers of the Fresno PD.

The drug cases were the re­sult of fed­eral, not Fresno in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

2014 - Fresno Po­lice Of­fi­cer Al­fred Cam­pos was in­ves­ti­gated af­ter bring­ing a stolen pickup to the Chevy deal­er­ship in Fresno. His home was raided for drugs.

2012 - Fresno Po­lice of­fi­cer Wil­liam Wyatt was ar­rested for rape.

2010 - Fresno PD of­fi­cers were in­dicted on fed­eral civil rights vi­o­la­tions, and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice af­ter they beat a Fresno man in their cus­tody.

2009 - Two Fresno of­fi­cers are caught on cam­era beat­ing a home­less lady. Two nar­cotics of­fi­cers are ar­rested for their in­volve­ment in an auto theft op­er­a­tion.

2008 - Chief Dyer comes un­der fire af­ter his nephew is ar­rested on pos­ses­sion with the in­tent to sell metham­phetamine.

2004 - Po­ten­tial whis­tle-blower Jose Mo­ralez was found dead not far from the house of Jerry Dyer af­ter he had con­fronted Dyer for sus­pend­ing him for al­legedly vi­o­lat­ing po­lice po­lices. The fam­ily of Jose Mo­ralez ac­cused Dyer and fel­low po­lice of­fi­cer, Al Maroney, of mur­der­ing Jose and cov­er­ing it up. Jose Mo­ralez’s wife, for­mer de­tec­tive Yolanda Mo­ralez, pub­licly re­vealed a very sin­is­ter and cor­rupt po­lice de­part­ment un­der Chief Jerry Dyer.

Given that some of the same peo­ple ac­cused of cor­rup­tion and even mur­der are still in power at the Fresno po­lice de­part­ment, the city coun­cil may have been wise to not fund Jerry Dyer’s con­tin­ued us­age of the Be­ware soft­ware and po­ten­tial mis­use against the res­i­dents of the city.

The au­thor of this ar­ti­cle has asked to re­main anony­mous for fear of reprisals from Chief Dyer.

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