Can Data Mining be Used to Prevent Spree Killing?

Like many, we at PLUS blog were shocked and horrified by the events of last week in Aurora, CO. While searching for a relevant feature for this week’s FTTCF we came across an interesting column from the Wall Street Journal – one that could have significant cyber and digital privacy implications if it ever came to fruition.
Our goal in sharing this article is not to take a stand one way or the other on the issue, but simply to share one take on how future tragedies like this could potentially be avoided. Enjoy reading – and have a great weekend.

From the article “Can Data Mining Stop the Killing?” –

Would Total Information Awareness have stopped James Eagan Holmes?

You perhaps remember the fuss. That program by the Defense Department was curtailed when the Senate voted to revoke funding amid a privacy furor in 2003. The project had been aimed partly at automatically collecting vast amounts of data and looking for patterns detectable only by computers.

It was originated by Adm. John Poindexter—yes, the same one prosecuted in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal—who said the key to stopping terrorism was “transaction” data. For terrorists to carry out attacks, he explained in a 2002 speech, “their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures in this information space.”

The Colorado shooter Mr. Holmes dropped out of school via email. He tried to join a shooting range with phone calls and emails going back and forth. He bought weapons and bomb-making equipment. He placed orders at various websites for a large quantity of ammunition. Aside from privacy considerations, is there anything in principle to stop government computers, assuming they have access to the data, from algorithmically detecting the patterns of a mass shooting in the planning stages?

It helps to go back over the controversy at the time. Supporters argued that Total Information Awareness shouldn’t be frightful to Americans—there would be no monitoring of identified individuals unless a warrant was issued. The system wouldn’t be collecting dossiers of personal information or choosing people to spy on, at least initially. It would be raking impersonally through vast streams of data looking for red flags.

The anguishing thing about mass-shooting incidents is that patterns are indeed present. The person usually has a history of causing alarm in people around. The episodes themselves typically begin with a personal setback—a divorce, a firing, an investment failure, getting kicked out of school. And preparations for mass murder certainly leave “signatures” in the “transaction space.”

Read the full article.