Would Total Information Awareness Have Prevented the Aurora Mass Murders?


I am totally aware that I don't want the government to know all that much about me

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.

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  1. The only thing that could have stopped him is Tom Cruise and his precogs.

    1. Or that bug-eyed balloon guy from Lost and his computer spitting out SSNs and Jim Caviezel.


    1. MP: Excellent point. Thanks.

    2. Exactly. It’ll be great to see the reactions of the anti-profiling folks once this stuff is implemented in earnest. “You gonna question *every* Muslim sci-fi buff who lives alone and often pays with cash?!”

  3. This would result in so much chaff they wouldn’t even be able to sift the wheat from it.

    1. So that results in a few extra doors being kicked in, a few extra dogs being shot, a few extra mentally ill people being tasered or beaten to death. They wouldn’t be under suspicion if they weren’t doing anything suspicious.

      I mean, why have SWAT teams at all if you’re not gonna use them?

      1. Look, Hugh, that joke you just made? You didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. Actually, it was me. I made it happen. You couldn’t have made it if I hadn’t commented. On the internet, that the government built.

        Do you see now? Do you see?

        1. Actually did you read the NYT article linked in a post earlier today? The author specifically said we cannot wait to separate the wheat from the chaff, because that separation only occurs at the moment the bodies start falling. Precautionary principal.

          1. They should probably just round up everybody into camps for “orderly disposal”.

            1. You and I both know the vast majority of people are perfectly willing to sell themselves and their posterity (and the rest of us) into virtual slavery if it meant the mitigation of even the silliest, least-likely risks.

              1. They’d probably even allow themselves to be branded by laser scan and be this close to going out.

              2. The false positives are where the money is. You need a huge staff to chase down all those bad leads.

                1. And lots of ammo, to shoot a lot of dogs.

          2. So just couple total information awareness with armed guards everywhere. That won’t cost much.

  4. That’s one creepy logo.

    1. Eye of Sauron or something?

  5. Even if TIA flagged this guy (among presumably many false positives) what are we proposing to do with that information? Are we now proposing to arrest people based on a computer algorithm’s assertion that they might commit a crime? And arrest everyone flagged by that computer algorithm incorrectly? So what if the cops did knock on his door, just to ask a few questions. Is being strange probable cause? If they found guns that he owned legally, would they take them away?

    Since the answers to all of the above are negative, at least under the US Constitution, then there’s really no practical purpose to all this data mining, QED.

    1. Suspects will be arrested and given an opportunity to prove in a secret tribunal that they were not planning to commit any crimes. At the conclusion of that trial they will be renditioned to secret prisons where they will spend the remainder of their lives.

      1. Only if they’re terrorists, so it’s okay.

      2. “We’ve ruled that you’re innocent, but since you’ve seen the judges and the location of the secret trial, we can’t let you go. So, secret prison for life it is!”

      3. Unless they’re predicted to be too dangerous to deserve a tribunal.

    2. Knock, knock.

      “Yeah? Joe? Is that you? I’m on the shitter! Just a minute.”


      “What do you want?”

      “We want to talk with you.”

      “About what?”

      “About that paint thinner and the box of 9mm that you bought.”

      “Is that illegal?”

      “Well, no.”

      “Do you have a warrant?”

      “No. We just want to talk to you.”

      “Well, I don’t. Fuck off.”

      So the agents go to the judge to get a warrant. And the judge says almost the same exact thing.

      Unless they have a plan for eliminating the Constitution (which is, of course, possible), what good would this do? What purpose could it serve but to justify spying on all of us, all the time?

      1. My favorite responses to cops who want to “talk” (illegally enter your domicile):

        “I can hear you just fine through the door.”

        “I already paid the dominatrix and the midget for the hour. Come back in 30 minutes.”

        “No entiendo ingles.”

        1. “No hablo cerdo.”

      2. So the agents go to the judge to get a warrant. And the judge says almost the same exact thing.

        Here’s where your plan falls apart. The judge would just stamp whatever is put in front of him, as they tend to do.

  6. The only thing intriguing about this question is that Jenkins and the WSJ didn’t realize immediately that the answer is “of course not”.

  7. Sounds a lot like that congressman who was grilling the FBI director after something, 9/11 does not fit but maybe, about why the FBI did not cross-reference the gun purchase database. The FBI director had to remind them that the FBI is not allowed to keep those records after someone is approved to buy a gun. Not that I believe they really do that, of course.

  8. “Bomb-making equipment”, like, where, at the bomb-making store?

    Dropping out of school via e-mail is, for someone with the prestigious position he had, in “school”, is unusual, or maybe not. Maybe these sorts of e-mails get tossed around by disgruntled, overworked science grad students (today’s form of slavery) all the time. And how would you program a computer to understand the significance of the e-mail? Do computers understand sarcasm? How many fatalities can we accept, every April Fools’ Day?

    Joining a shooting range is not an unusual activity. If anything, shooting club members tend to be squeaky-clean. A club where I compete has members who have Federal law enforcement ties (not the sort that make me creeped out, but definitely the sort of ties that a criminal would want to steer clear of).

    And the largest buyers of ammunition are competitive target shooters. I have another 1500 rounds of shotgun ammo to pick up tomorrow, myself.

    Sorting through the false positives, as others have said, would be an impossible task. Failure to sort through them would have tragic and deadly consequences.

    That’s all BEFORE the privacy considerations.

    My point? ALL this would do would be to allow the Federal Government to monitor every aspect of every one of our lives, 24/7/365. It couldn’t have stopped this shooter.

    This system could not have stopped the shooter, and therefore its only imaginable purpose WOULD be to create an excuse to spy on everyone, full-time.

    1. Don’t forget cough syrup and cold medicine. Because total information awareness is not just for catching terrorists and would-be mass murderers, it also comes in handy in rounding up drug criminals and tax evaders!

      1. And moms with a few sick kids during cold season. If they’re lucky, only their dogs will be shot in front of the family.

    2. (today’s form of slavery)


      1. With a BS chemistry degree you can go to grad school or get a job. You get paid twice as much at the job as you do if you are in a stipened position as a grad student, and you do essentially the same work. The difference is that after a few years in grad school you get to put a PhD at the end of your name and then you start earning at least twice as much as the guy with just a BS. So it is a bit more like endentured servitude than slavery.

    3. “Joining a shooting range is not an unusual activity.”

      Getting rejected from shooting range membership by giving off a nutjob vibe is probably unusual, but shitty states lead to omerta.

    4. Not just spy, but modify behavior to one that suits the states needs. I’m not sure why more people didn’t notice that CISPA would have provisioned not only a sharing and payment system for Government/Private intelligence agencies, but also allowed for two way communication to the target, akin to cops using seized cell phones to entrap people via text. The mechanisms already exist for passive accumulation(by the subject/target), messing with the script of ad bots and the like. I assume someone is working on a Stuxnet like bug(or one exists already) to take the place of manually loading a Keylogger.

    5. I call the bomb-making store Ace Hardware.

  9. I’ve always viewed TIA as equivalent to the east German Stasi. Yes, they had data about everyone on everything, but it was impossible to collate. Maybe with some singularity type AI’s …?

  10. It probably won’t work because language needs a context, a history. And most of that history is local to the people, not your information system.

    1. Ah, but the TOTAL info system will *learn* that history from the new data gleaned from questioning people about their “innocent explanations”.

  11. The only consolation I have regarding the ubiquitous law enforcement we are about to experience is than Verne Vignor predicted that civilization would collapse shortly thereafter.

    My regret is that we are not going to make it off-planet before the collapse.

    1. unless you win one of the four one-way tickets to Mars:


  12. Total information awareness exists right now. They just don’t want you to have any information or awareness about it.

  13. There isn’t a database anywhere of toothpaste purchases and acts of terrorism to crossreference. So we have no way to build a model that predicts terrorism from toothpaste purchases. And if we just used arbitrary rules, we have no way of guessing if they would be better than random. The TIA program has always been a fraud.

  14. Would Total Information Awareness Have Prevented the Aurora Mass Murders?

    if it helps you stiff even a single caddy, it’s worth it.

  15. August 2012: TIA comes online

    September 2012: Entire cast and crew of Mythbusters is arrested for amassing enormous supply of bombmaking materials and simulating attacks on civilians using ballistics-gel dummies; Discovery Channel staff indicted under RICO and Patriot Act

    1. This made me laugh.

      Although, I don’t think it would catch them so quickly because they already have a huge stash of weapons and bomb making materials.

  16. Let’s ask the question about how much of the carnage could have been prevented just by Cinemark having awareness of and control of the emergency exit that was probably the way that the weapons were brought into the theatre auditorium.

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