Science & Technology

Would Total Information Awareness Have Prevented the Aurora Mass Murders?


That's the intriguing question asked in an op/ed by Holman Jenkins over at the Wall Street Journal. Recall that Total Information Awareness was a Pentagon program with the aim of developing a vast surveillance database that would supposedly be mined to identify terrorists before they strike. The idea was scrapped when it turned out that Americans were more worried about pervasive government surveillance than they were of terrorists.

In his column, Jenkins muses that TIA algorithms might have been able to sift through vast quantities of online data to identified the shooter.

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?

I am charmed by Jenkins' casual putting aside pesky privacy considerations. He notes that even though the TIA program was not implemented in its entirety, the National Security Agency does engage in a lot of data mining. This prompts him to ask:

After the Aurora theater massacre, it might be fair to ask what kinds of things the NSA has programmed its algorithms to look for. Did it, or could it have, picked up on Mr. Holmes's activities? And if not, what exactly are we getting for the money we spend on data mining?

Actually, I would very much like to know the answer to that question. What indeed?

In any case, over The Washingtonian, Shane Harris, author of the 2010 book The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, argues that TIA would not have stopped the Aurora murders. Why? Because the algorithm for identifying would-be terrorists and mass murderers does not exist. Harris asserts:

Even if the government were crunching away on guns and ammo sales and cross-referencing them to school enrollment reports, such an algorithm would generate hundreds if not thousands of potential "suspects" that investigators wouldn't have the time or the people to track down…

A computer cannot distinguish between innocuous behavior and sinister plotting just by looking at a list of receipts. And, Jenkins might be surprised to know, that is not what Total Information Awareness proposed to do, either…

As much as we would like to believe "total information awareness" would have led us to Holmes's doorstep before that awful night, it's just not so. We look at Holmes now, with that wild orange hair and those bulging eyes, and think: He would have stood out among the crowd. He would have seemed like the kind of person capable of a killing spree. But that's just our imagination.

I personally hope that Shane is right. As sorry as I feel for those who died or were wounded and for their friends and families, I feel safer in a world where government surveillance is not (yet) all pervasive.