City Council backs away from social spyware
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Though they have little direct say in the matter, Bellingham City Council this week urged the city’s police department to forget about a potentially invasive set of software tools.
The Bellingham Police Department applied for a grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance in the amount of $25,800 to purchase digital information-gathering services that draw from billions of commercial and public records, providing law enforcement with “threat” scores on addresses and the people associated with those addresses. Databases searched by Intrado Beware software include social media sites, causing many who spoke at council’s public hearing on the matter concern about the potential abuse of such a system, including the targeting of citizens for their social or political views.
Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook told council the software was offered to his department as an introductory package by Intrado, a company that provides 911 and emergency dispatch communications infrastructure to many cities throughout the United States. The software, he said, would enhance practices the department already uses.
“The yearly cost for this service is $36,000 per year for five years,” Cook explained in a memo to council. “As one of the premiere agencies in Washington State to use this service, we are receiving a $16,000 yearly discount, reducing our total annual cost to $20,000.”
Council member Jack Weiss noted that even taking into account the federal grant, the police department was committing itself to a considerable financial outlay in support of this system.
Many who spoke at the meeting commented on the expansion of an increasingly militarized security surveillance state and the attendant loss of privacy and civil liberties. Others drew parallels to a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that restricts police access to cell phone data obtained without a warrant. The Court recognized significant privacy concerns, including Fourth Amendment protections, with cell phone and cloud data.
Council learned of the software in June through a public presentation that was required as part of the federal grant application program. Council action was not required and police representatives were not on hand at the June meeting to answer questions about the purchase, touching off a storm of community concern. Council voted to hold a more formal public hearing on the issue July 7.
Cook and Deputy Police Chief David Doll apologized to council for their absence in June. The department does not typically make formal presentations for grant applications, and their presentation in June was for public information only.
While City Council does not have the authority to block the Justice grant, a majority urged the police department to find some other, better use for the money the department intends to spend on the software.
“What it does is search the internet based on a series of parameters that have been given for the search, and pops up with any kind of information for a particular person or location where you request information,” civil rights attorney Larry Hildes stated in a presentation to council. “So, if anyone in that particular house has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime that information will come up.”
Cook explained the software provides a tool that can allow law enforcement officers to quickly assemble a profile to enhance their understanding of a developing situation, creating a greater degree of safety for police and the public.
“The threat analysis is achieved via a proprietary algorithm that searches information from thousands of sources including public records, commercial data and publication, social media, and various internet sites. The data are then weighed against the relevancy of a direct or indirect possibility of a threat,” Cook explained.
“Bellingham Police staff will tailor the algorithm for threat scoring based on best practices, organizational policies and organizational procedures relating to risk acceptance and officer safety. We will tailor the search to include arrest conviction information on crimes of violence, arrests for crimes of violence and social media involving threats of violence made on publicly accessible platforms,” he noted.
Cook said information gathered did not exclusively create probable cause for an arrest, but “may be used to better understand the situation and help create a more comprehensive assessment of potential risks and persons involved.”
Doll noted that information gathered through the system had, in a recent attempt of suicide, quickly provided police with contact information for a relative who was able to help calm the person and avert the suicide.
He also said Bellingham Police would not use the service to query domestic terrorism lists or national arrest data, but would look for convictions for violent crimes and local arrest and conviction data.
The proprietary algorithm was cause for concern among many who spoke at the evening hearing.
“Given that this is a private company, they are not subject to the same public records act that government agencies are subject to, so unless the company is forced to give this information to the City Council as part of the buying process now being considered, we may never know how these threat scores are developed,” Hildes said.
“We do know that Intrado’s threat score is partially based on social media statements. If someone has made any threatening statements on the internet, that goes into the score. But who knows how much weight is given to this? So someone who rails against the government or against police abuse, can they expect that if they call 911 or someone calls 911 about them, that they will be facing guns drawn because of the Intrado score?”
Cook said his department would create policy guidelines for the use of the system that would limit access of the search engine to commissioned police officers and licensed emergency dispatchers who would be trained in its use. Information obtained from the search engine and generated into a printed document will be subject to public disclosure, he said.
“Just because the department has assured us they can set up strict guidelines for its use currently, doesn’t mean it will stay that way,” Hildes said.
“The service is not designed to replace common sense, or ethical decision making at all levels of this organization,” Doll explained. “Our goal is to enhance our officer and community safety, while at the same time increasing our efficiency and effectiveness in police investigation. The service is designed to help paint a picture, not to completely paint a picture.”
“We as a department understand the nature of the people who live in our community, what they expect from their police department,” Cook assured council, “and what they will likely accept our abilities to entail.
“At the same time, as the chief I feel I have a serious obligation to the community and to the officers who work here,” he said. “Ultimately, we don’t want the situations we face to become violent if we can avoid that.”
Responding to concerns of mission creep, of an expanding role for collected data in law enforcement efforts, Cook said, “That type of capability, for us, undermines the capabilities I think most people will find acceptable. As chief, I won’t agree to.”
Praising Bellingham Police, Council member Pinky Vargas cautioned, “Data mining and the loss of personal privacy concerns me greatly.
“I’m reluctant to see this as a top priority for the department.”
Council member Michael Lilliquist agreed.
“I think the reason this is a difficult decision is because this is the Bellingham Police Department we trust making the request,” he said. His concerns, he said, remain.
“I want this department to be as transparent, not only with you, but with this community as we can be,” Cook told council members. “The only way for me to do that is to be as open and frank about what it is I see our needs are, but also recognizing what I see are community values.”