Facebook points out that it was in a “private” and not public message that Salvador Ramos announced his intention to kill his grandmother and attack a school. But electronic SMS, including those intended to disappear as soon as they are read, are not private vis-à-vis the bearer. The intended recipient may never see them, but the carrier will always see them. The message must exist in a database to be seen. Google, until a few years ago, scanned your private email to show you ads. Many email providers still do this. If private email messages can be scanned for any purpose, they can be scanned for any purpose.
Bloomberg misquoted Joe Biden in a headline, saying the president demanded the U.S. “stand up to arms manufacturers after Texas attack.” No, he didn’t, because “He’s not dumb. His actual words weren’t gun manufacturers but a gun lobby, which at least allowed for some clever ambiguity about who he was referring to. “Guns are not a factor in American gun policy. They have no influence and little voice compared to the gun “lobby”, if we can use that word for millions and millions of pro-gun voters.
Al Gore would have been president in 2000 if he hadn’t lost his home state thanks to those voters and the 1994 assault weapons ban. Ordained in horror after the Luby mass shooting in Texas, it quietly expired 10 years later because pro-gun voters changed Congress the same silent way they denied Mr. Gore the White House.
Of the 20 million guns sold in the United States each year, half are clip-on semi-automatics of the practical kind for slaughter by someone who wants to make a demented statement. Stopping these sales is not on the agenda of any legislature. Removing these weapons from the hands of the public would be an even more difficult task. The wisdom, however, is preserved in the cliches: there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Ask Google, Microsoft or Facebook, companies that employ data scientists in the thousands, what databases they should access to avoid the next mass shooting, what privacy restrictions should be relaxed. It would be the easiest problem they’d been asked to solve all week.
In Texas, you can’t buy a gun without showing a driver’s license or other government-issued ID, filling out a federal form, undergoing an instant background check, all of which create information in a database of data. One oversight is Texas’ failure to ensure that anyone buying ammunition also leaves a record. This can be corrected.
A disciplined, hardened terrorist, or a weird fish like Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock, might not otherwise betray his murderous intentions, but the typical obsessive copycat gun fetishist and admirer of mass shooters will. . This was made clear in horrific episode after excruciating episode. As the Texas atrocity showed again, killers of this ilk advertise their inclinations online and offline. They announce their acquisition of weapons. They give voice to threats because making threats fulfills the same psychological need as acting on those threats.
Red flag laws, by acclamation, may be our response to the latest shootings in Texas and Buffalo. But red flag laws are only as good as the evidence that drives someone, often the police, to invoke them. Most are single data point laws – someone complains for some reason. The results are bound to be poor, producing false positives and the harassment of innocent citizens. But now type the name into a hypothetical Google Mass Shooter profiling tool, analyzing the subject’s recent online history, purchases, and school, employment, police, medical, and travel records. A subroutine, Google’s Social Stability Matrix, examines data related to the subject’s longer-term lifestyle. Is he a stable and committed member of the community or is he adrift and disconnected?
Many data points are better than one, making the red flag petition less of a shot in the dark and less of a threat to law-abiding people. A subject who scores a 3 could earn a welfare check, one who earns an 8 an immediate supervision order using network license plate readers and facial recognition cameras. But then ask: why wait for a red flag petitioner to provide a name? Why not have an algorithm that already looks for warning patterns that even a family member, school official, or employer might not see?
Sounds like China? The data exists. Private and public institutions already have a strong foothold in this breeding ground. The Uvalde School District, according to The Washington Post, was monitoring social media to identify emerging student conflicts. Nor will these techniques be invented or cease to progress, so the remaining choice is to wrap them in democratic accountability and due process. Most crimes cannot be stopped by such means, but statement-type mass shootings, in particular, are almost begging to be stopped.
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