Could (should) Big Brother have stopped Holmes?

Fascinating piece in the WSJ today, posing the following question:

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?…

This not only evokes 1984, but the department of “pre-crime” envisioned in “Minority Report.” Which should send all sorts of shivers down the sensitive spines of libertarians.

But a legitimate question is being posed here. Since such data is being mined, should not someone be on the lookout for transactional patterns such as those Holmes engaged in? Guy suddenly isolates himself from society (a step leading to what I call the Raskolnikov syndrome), buys several rapid-fire weapons and lots and lots of ammunition? If it’s possible for such patterns to raise red flags, then shouldn’t it, if it can prevent the deaths of innocents?

In passing on this question, I’m not thinking in terms of having the cops bust down doors and file charges against people for having raised red flags. But I do think it might be worthwhile to have a chat with someone displaying such signs, to ascertain what is going on — or perhaps making the people in that person’s life aware of what’s happening, to empower them to intervene if they see fit. That could go a long way toward snapping some potential killers out of their trip down the rabbit hole.

As the columnist asks of the NSA: “Did it, or could it have, picked up on Mr. Holmes’s activities?” And if not, why not? And if it did, what should it have done?

44 thoughts on “Could (should) Big Brother have stopped Holmes?

  1. Juan Caruso

    It has been reported that James Holmes received a federal grant for grad school that included a stipend for (up to $26,000) “personal expenses”.

    Consider that Colorado authorities believe Holmes’s arsenal was worth about $15,000.

    If indeed true, taxpayers helped finance his murder spree. At the very least, student recipients who drop out should be reported as automatically and as fast as social security recipient deaths are reported to the feds so stipends are frozen.

    Do we need a new bloated, federal bureaucracy to handle a few student terminations? Let’s hope the drones who dispense student grants can become as adept at terminating them.

  2. Doug Ross

    Yeah, let’s set up a multi-billion dollar agency to identify a few nutjobs.

    How many “false positives” do you think would be generated? How much would it cost to investigate them?

    Crazy people will always find a way to kill people. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

  3. Steven Davis II

    $15,000… what a joke. 6,000 rounds of ammo at $300/1000 is $1800. The AR-15 he used might be $900, the shotgun another $300, the two pistols about $400 each. That comes to a total of $3800 by my count. Give him another $200 for the crap in his apartment and we’re still $9000 short of what the experts say.

    How many students receive grants, how many shoot up a theater? What would the cost of implementing a Big Brother system cost, and what would their annual budget be? Face it, people slip through the cracks and they will continue to do so no matter how much security is in place. People escape prisons where there are millions of dollars invested to keep them there.

  4. Brad

    Doug, and Juan… I didn’t pick up on the idea of starting a new agency. I thought the columnist was suggesting that the agency already exists, and is already performing this function — or could very easily, and he’s wondering why not?

    I would guess that with two factors alone — people who bought an unusually large amount of ammunition right after a dropping out of an elite program they had been accepted into — your algorithm would already get you down to a pretty small group of people to ask questions about.

    The barrier here almost certainly wouldn’t be cost, since we’re set up for this sort of thing now. The only question is whether we think we SHOULD be using this capacity in this way…

  5. Brad

    To folks who wield the anti-big government hammer, everything looks like a nail. This isn’t about the spending, folks. It’s not a nail. The only question here is whether to use the tool we already have, in this particular way. It’s philosophical, not fiscal.

  6. Doug Ross

    Seriously? You think the tools to do this are already in place and would “very easily” be able to be implemented? You really don’t know anything about software, do you?

    Oh, we’ll just have Fred take his spreadsheet and do a lookup function to Joe’s spreadsheet and merge them together and then spit out an email to the local FBI office with all the details.

    It costs millions to implement and support something simple like an HR system for a company with a few thousand employees.

    And you think this is already available?

    Start at $1 billion to just get the design.

  7. Brad

    Doug, chill. Go back and read the piece. It’s about something we’re already doing in the service of counterterrorism. He’s asking whether we’re already mining this particular data domestically, which we may be, and then he’s asking if not, why not?

    No one’s proposing to spend money. The assumption underlying the piece is that we’ve got the spyglass. The question is whether to train it in this direction.

    Now if it turns out he’s wrong and we’d have to reinvent the wheel to do this, THEN we can have that conversation.

    But this question is philosophical — is this something we SHOULD be doing? That’s what’s being raised here. I would think you would have strong opinions about that, if I could get you to focus on it…

  8. Doug Ross

    Should we do it? No.

    These events occur so rarely that the few times it MIGHT be successful over the course of years would be offset by resources being expended chasing down false leads.

    Let’s say a name pops up. The FBI goes to the guy’s house and says, “Hey, what’s up with all those guns you bought?” If the person responds with “None of your business.” then what? Surveillance? Search warrants? How long do you watch the guy?

  9. Steven Davis II

    “It’s philosophical, not fiscal.”

    So then it’s not worth discussing, I took one Philosophy class in college, total waste of my time.

  10. Steven Davis II

    The government can’t even keep track of guns they sell to the Mexican cartels and you want a national database of ammunition and gun ownership?

    “Sorry, Mr. ATF agent but I used to have guns and ammo but was moving them from Lexington to Irmo by boat last week and wouldn’t you know, my boat capsized and I lost everything.”

  11. Karen McLeod

    Assuming that it was a good idea (and I don’t think it is), the second the NRA found out you were tracking, not only gun sales, but ammo sales, they’d be after you. Meanwhile the serious killer would find another way to acquire the equipment he needed.

  12. Norm Ivey

    According to the CDC, 11,493 people were murdered using handguns in 2009. That’s 31 people a day. We only noticed this particular criminal because he took out 12 all at once. If the goal of such a program is to reduce the number of firearm homicides, our energies and resources are better spent addressing the small-scale killers and figuring out how to stop them.

    Access to guns and ammunition is just one contributing factor to this tragedy. Another is that he didn’t get the mental health treatment he needed in time. If he had been seeing a mental health professional and had given some indication of what he was planning, the doctor would have been compelled to report him to law enforcement.

    I don’t want the government watching my (or anyone else’s) spending habits and online activities without cause. I feel the same way about some provisions of the Patriot Act. The idea that my government can watch everybody to stop somebody is offensive. I suspect such a program would identify more innocent people as threats than it would potential killers.

  13. Mark Stewart

    If we are going down this rabbit hole, wouldn’t it be easier to monitor intra-family communications for signs of serious mental breakdown? One stop spying… but then what? Treat the needy?

  14. bud

    We could require everyone to obtain a permit for any type of gun that would entail a medical exam to determine both physical (can they see well) and mental (are they sane) fitness. Then there would be a requirement to demonstrate shooting proficiency at a gun range. Once all this is done the prospective gun buyer could purchase the registered firearm. This would be in line with what we require to drive an automobile. Gun transfers would funnel through a government agency so they could be tracked. It would be illegal to sell a firearm to anyone who is not properly licensed to operate one.

  15. Doug Ross


    Warren Buffett isn’t an event. He’s the sum of 50+ years of thousands of events. See the difference?

    A snowstorm in Florida is a black swan. An average daily temperature of 75 degrees for the year is not. One is random, the other is not.

  16. Doug Ross

    The largest number of handgun deaths by far comes from young black males killing young black males. Why doesn’t Obama address that issue?

  17. Herb Brasher

    Methinks Doug would look at this problem less passively if it were his children or grandchildren who got shot in that theater.

    Every time a child or an adult gets murdered, it’s the child or relative of all of us. Every time this happens I look at my own grandkids and wonder when it is going to happen to one of them. How long are we going to refuse to see the obvious? Prohibition of unneeded assault weapons and proper registrations would help us a lot, but no, the insanity continues in the name of limited government.

    James Madison should have stayed with his original conviction that a Bill of Rights was not needed, and maybe we would not have had to live with a Second Amendment that is applied in ways never intended in the first place.

    Sorry, but this whole thing makes me sick to my stomach.

  18. Herb Brasher

    I keep seeing ‘friends’ of mine on FB posting things about how we need to arm everybody in the country, and then this wouldn’t happen. Are we crazy? We already have almost one firearm for every inhabitant in the U.S. Only Yemen is close, and they have far less murders than we do.

    I really do wish I could stay in Germany.

  19. Steven Davis II

    “Interesting how Doug sees the shooting as a Black Swan event, but Warren Buffett is not.”

    So now the shooting is being described as a ballet?

  20. Doug Ross

    It’s amusing to see people try and extrapolate tracking cars with tracking guns with licenses and government control.

    A gun isn’t a car. You can’t hide a car in your pocket. While there may be a very small number of unregistered cars on the road it’s a whole lot different from the number of illegal guns that would remain out there even if we registered all the legal ones. A gun can remain underground until it is needed. All you would be doing is tracking legal weapons. A waste of time.

  21. Kathryn Fenner

    Warren Buffett had a significant leg up by virtue of the random chance of his birth. He certainly has capitalized on the many exceptional opportunities he has had. Success breeds success.

  22. Brad

    Sometimes you leave me scratching my head, Doug…

    The fact that a gun is easy to hide would, logically, argue that there is greater need for it to be registered than a car.

    I mean, we can SEE the cars. Not like they’re hiding. If you wanted to know where all the cars are in a community, for whatever purpose, just drive around. There they are. Not so with guns. If they’re not registered, and thereby associated with individuals who are responsible for them, it’s pretty tough to know where they are.

    By the way, I’m not arguing here either for or against gun registration. I’m just puzzled by the argument you just made, which seemed to make the opposite of the logical point.

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    @Herb — I think if something awful happened to any of the pro-gun crowd, they would simply see it as confirmation of the need for even more guns.

    Btws, there have been at least a cople of soothing rampages in Germany. Commentators are suggesting it’s more an issue of privileged white males becoming outraged when they confront the limits of their privilege. They are not used to being denied, so when it happens, they go on a rampage to reassertion themselves. Apparently none have thought beyond the reassertion stage.

  24. James Cross

    A more current pop cultural reference would be the CBS television show “Person of Interest” which postulates exactly the system described in the WSJ article–in fact, probably a more powerful one. And aside from the A.I. program/supercomputer that ties everything together and does the analysis the surveillance technology exists now.

    As to the question asked by the article I suppose it comes down to which side of the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Juvenal, *Satire* VI, lines 347–8, “Who watches the watchmen?”) you come down on. Even the fictional world of “Person of Interest” acknowledges that there will always be people who will use the technology for less than noble ends.

  25. Steven Davis II

    We could require everyone to obtain a permit for any type of gun that would entail a medical exam to determine both physical (can they see well) and mental (are they sane) fitness.

    Would this be covered under Obamacare?

  26. Steven Davis II

    “It’s amusing to see people try and extrapolate tracking cars with tracking guns with licenses and government control. ”

    I am finding more and more of bud’s comments amusing. I envision an old man shaking his fist while typing.

  27. Herb Brasher

    @Kathryn, yes, and in Norway, too. But I don’t really worry about someone walking into a movie theater here in Europe with an assault rifle and a bag full of ammunition for it.

  28. Doug Ross


    How would you propose registering all the guns that people currently own? If they aren’t registered, how will you track them?

    It’s not like a car which has to be on the street, have insurance, have a license plate, be repaired, potentially be stopped by the police for anything as trivial as a parking ticket.

    Now tell me what would cause a person with a gun to make it known to the authorities if they didn’t want to make it known?

    All you would be tracking is legally owned guns by law abiding citizens.

    And new guns? It’s a whole lot easier to bring illegal weapons into the country than it would be to bring in a car.

  29. Doug Ross


    “Success breeds success.” As does failure for succesful people. The world is full of people who have been up then down then back up. Donald Trump was nearly bankrupt at one point. Microsoft has had any number of failed products. Remember New Coke?

    It’s how you respond to failure that means more.

  30. Kathryn Fenner

    Few have the magic mix to succeed then fail then pick themselves up and marshal resources to try try again.

  31. Steven Davis II

    @Doug – Honor system.

    I remember a few years ago there was an attempt to microdot gunpowder and micro-encode bullets so they could be traced. But that law was attempted to be pushed through and paid for by a lobbyist that was working for the company that would have provided the microdots and encoding equipment.

  32. Kathryn Fenner

    It is a magic mix: a combination of luck, genes, experience. I lack some components; the Warren Buffetts and Doug Rosses of the world obviously don’t.


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