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?