From here on Maui, we have been watching with concern a move by the Honolulu police to force Oahu pawnbrokers to use international software company proprietary software to report pawn loans and purchases of secondhand goods. Kamaaina Loan is not opposed to electronic reporting of pawn transactions; we have done it to Maui police for years and, in fact, were the first pawn shop anywhere to do it.
But the off-the-shelf software can be used abusively, and this story from the Dallas Morning News confirms our fears — pawn reporting software is being used to profile citizens and harass them. It is more than a little startling that the Dallas police cooperated with the reporter, since their behavior is clearly unconstitutional, but they not only admit it, they celebrate their misbehavior:
Every two weeks, Franklin circulates a list of his top 10 “pawnees” to other areas of the department. Tarves ranked No. 3 in May for selling and pawning dozens of items in two weeks, including jewelry, gold, computers, vacuum cleaners, sports memorabilia and watches.
“We’re not picking on pawnees, not picking on pawnshops — just looking at things that look suspicious,” Franklin said.
People usually make the watch list if they have had prior run-ins with the law along with suspicious activity. Several sales of the same type of item — such as selling multiple TVs — also raise red flags.
Note that not only do the Dallas police not have probable cause to suspect these “top 10” customers of a specific crime, the police do not even have evidence that a crime has been committed.
While the story says that the police use the software to try to match records of stolen items with records of pawn transactions — something legal and even smart policing — it makes clear that they are also using the software to generate freeform — and evidence-free — hit lists:
Not many people on pawnee lists obtained by The Dallas Morning News had been arrested on property crime charges, including Tarves. He has been convicted of theft by check and has two check forgery charges pending.
Franklin said the charges can be difficult to prove because even if the goods were stolen, authorities would have to prove that the seller was the one who originally stole them.
But police have the person on their radar and might connect them to other crimes. Franklin said he gets positive feedback within the department.
Get that? “even if the goods were stolen”
The software — there are two main competitors in this area — can be used in even more abusive ways. Although the story does not indicate that Dallas police have done so, police can equip squad cars with interactive computers that track persons they “think” are suspicious and alert cops on patrol when they enter a pawn shop.
Think about that. And let’s take it out of the realm of pawn shops. Suppose police think you are a shoplifter, based on nothing more than that some computer program profiled you for “shoplifter-like” behavior; and then, every time you walk into Macy’s, the local patrol car comes by to follow you.
You’d be outraged, we think, and rightfully so.