We're not at "Minority Report" levels of law enforcement just yet, but police departments may be getting close.
A new piece of software in place at the Fresno Police Department in central California uses huge batches of data, ranging from criminal history to Twitter feeds, to assess how likely someone is to commit a crime and whether the police ought to keep tabs on them.
Fresno's program, one of the first of its kind, according to The Washington Post, is the logical next step in a new era of law enforcement: one that uses number-crunching and computer algorithms to catch criminals, rather than solely relying on foot patrol and deep investigations.
The main criticism is that in hunting for legitimate criminals, law enforcement can accidentally sweep up law-abiding citizens. Then it's up to programs like the Innocence Project — a national non-profit that has used DNA and other forensic evidence to overturn more than 300 wrongful convictions since 1992 — to reverse the damage.
Fresno's program, called Beware, was built by the security company Intrado, which provides products and services to law enforcement, including telecommunication services for 9-1-1 calls, emergency location technology, and big data management.
In addition to keeping tabs on locals that it deems dangerous, Beware works behind the scenes as officers respond to calls.
When someone calls 9-1-1 to report criminal activity, the software get to work on scouring the internet, the deep Web, arrest records, vehicle registrations, address databases, property records, tweets, Facebook posts, and more.
The information then gets sent to the officers handling the call, which they can use to zoom in on possible weapons, drugs, or violent tendencies of people living nearby.
According to Intrado's online brochure, the software "identifies relevant information leading to safer outcomes for all parties involved" and "allows for proactive responses to any situation, anywhere, at any time in seconds."
But critics say that those "proactive responses" may turn out to be false negatives.
In November, the Fresno City Council addressed residents' concerns over Beware's mysterious and seemingly omnipotent power. One councilman, Clinton J. Olivier, requested his threat level be calculated right there on the spot.
If the program's software produced a green threat level, it means the billions of data points came back clean. If the level is yellow or red, that may indicate a criminal record, suspicious online activity, or more (Intrado doesn't disclose its exact methodology).
As The Washington Post reports, Olivier earned a green rating. His home, however, came up yellow in the Beware system.
"Even though it's not me that's the yellow guy, your officers are going to treat whoever comes out of that house in his boxer shorts as the yellow guy," Olivier said. "That may not be fair to me."
Programs like Beware are likely to continue growing in popularity. The question moving forward is whether this is the most efficient and humane way to police a neighborhood.
Nothing makes people feel safer than a tight-knit community. If people trust each other and trust their local police department, there's little reason to live in fear.But places like Fresno are no longer prioritizing trust. They are prioritizing data, and we have no idea where that can lead.