New data-gathering system heralded as advance in war against terrorism

New skills developed in west Chandler may win worldwide acclaim for preventing acts of crime and terrorism. But if the technology generates privacy concerns, it likely will end up on the radar of civil libertarians.

Cummings Engineering, a startup housed in the city’s Innovation Incubator west of the Price/101 Freeway, has announced receipt of a patent for its so-called Grass Roots Intelligence Program, known by the acronym GRIP.

Chief Executive Officer Darren Cummings said the patent involves the method by which his company’s technology can sort and assess the credibility of disparate data tips that might otherwise seem unrelated or inconsequential, and then create “actionable intelligence” for crime prevention at local, state and federal levels.

“It will serve as a cyber-cop, if you will,” said Cummings.

As to any possible downside, observers say privacy advocates could view the system as an intrusion into the lives of people whose activities can be recorded by potentially millions of digital eyes that could forward the data indiscriminately to a massive, centralized source for analysis.

Cummings told Chandler public-information officer Jane Poston that the technology was developed as part of an effort to improve the nation’s ability to minimize the likelihood of future attacks on U.S. targets.

With the new technology, Cummings said, residents can play a role in protecting their neighborhoods by providing a simple means to report activity through a free app on cell phones and other mobile devices.

Such resident reports can be filtered through the GRIP system and analyzed against other information in that same database, using artificial intelligence to determine relationships, and takes action that it considers appropriate based on its findings, Cummings told Poston.

Incoming data is constantly analyzed, predicting threats and transforming the findings into actionable intelligence, according to Cummings.

“Often those in the best position to report potential crime and even terrorist activity are individual civilians who might notice suspicious activity during their daily routine,” said Cummings.

“Unfortunately, right now people are limited to calling 911,” he said. “GRIP serves as a highly intelligent ‘cyber-detective’ system that leverages state-of-the-art information technology and innovation and is a perfect fit with next-generation 911 ambitions.”

The technology will be widely available as a software application for today’s popular smartphones such as Android-, iPhone- and Blackberry-enabled devices.

“Commercial smartphones are ubiquitous and their capabilities are constantly expanding,” said Cummings.

“This technology will serve as a force multiplier for our budget-strapped law enforcement communities. Bringing it to fruition will be expedited by leveraging our existing technology.”

Some, however, have suggested that more needs to be known about the system.

John Burger, a retired Kyrene Corridor attorney and West Point graduate who follows privacy issues, says questions may arise, depending on how the GRIP system works, about what data it collects or retains and what protocols are built into its “artificial intelligence.”

“People tend to be wary of blanket, indiscriminate data collection not related to any specific threat or crime,” said Burger, at the same time noting that threat-assessment laws and methodology have changed since 9/11.

“In the wake of those attacks, federal legislation was passed giving the government wider powers to track and investigate suspicious activity so that crime prevention would be easier.”

A number of cases related to that legislation are just now making it to the appellate courts for opinions, Burger said.

But, added Burger:

“How that information is used, kept, disseminated and disposed of is the question. Preventing terrorist attacks or crimes may be accomplished; using the system to obtain a criminal conviction in court could be much harder.”

In a telephone interview with Wrangler News, Cummings dismissed the notion of privacy issues, saying the philosophy regarding his company’s system is little different from what is currently used to report suspicious activity.

Instead of calling 911, people observing what they consider unusual behavior could use Cummings’ cell phone app that makes it possible to submit a photo or text to the system’s database.

Once in the system, he said, the data could be linked to a specific zip code targeted by law enforcement, for example, to determine whether the information should be passed along to an agency that might find it useful.

As to how such information will be evaluated for possible transmission to such an agency, Cummings said the system includes a means to make that determination.

“The technology will be assessing whether the situation is a scam or not, because obviously some people will be sending a lot of junk,” he said.

“(The technology) is what produces the credibility, the ability to triage and the ability to act in the appropriate manner.”

Comparing his system to what already exists, Cummings countered possible privacy concerns by saying it simply solves the problem of inefficient data sharing and doesn’t change the way people pass along what they consider suspicious.

“My standard response (to privacy questions) is that I’m a citizen like you; I have privacy concerns like you and will follow all privacy guidelines that exist.”

— Mark Crudup and Don Kirkland contributed to this story


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