Big Data - Can it Stop School Shootings?

Actual Posts from Youth Wanting To Kill Others

Valentines Day, 2018 will forever be remembered for another school shooting. For those directly impacted, the pain is unimaginable. For the rest of us, the "what can be done" debate renews. There is a lot of online and pundit discussion going on right now about the merits of gun control and providing appropriate mental health services, and how new laws and funding would or would not stop future mass shootings. But the reality is that no legislation is going to happen soon enough to stop the next violent act. In analyzing Nikolas Cruz's social media posts after the fact, it is obvious that he is a deeply disturbed young man. Many of the posts he made before the Douglas High School shooting self-predicted the violence that was to come. The FBI and Florida police report that they had monitored his posts, yet had no way of identifying Nikolas Cruz as the writer, and taken individually, his posts did not portend an imminent threat.

However, with 100% certainty, social media companies, mobile companies, search engine companies, and other digital organizations could have identified the pattern, identified the potential threat, and identified Cruz himself down to his mobile phone number and thus home address. How do we know? Because if I want to find an individual who has used a term on a social media post, I can do so. That post can be tied back to an account, and the keepers of the digital security key, e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc., can tie that account username and password and ultimately an email address to an IP address. That information can then be cross-referenced and used to identify an individual. Digital companies do this with their own data every second of every day.

THE BIG DATA / BIG IDEA: What if the top social media and technology companies pooled their resources and created an independent third-party organization responsible for aggregating and mining digital data for potential threats?

  • This group would be responsible for aggregating and mining anonymous and non-identifiable digital data for threatening language.

  • The organization would have it's own independent oversight board to ensure objectivity, and to ensure that the data is not resold to companies, including the founding partners.

  • If a threat is determined, the information would forward to Homeland Security.

  • Homeland Security would be required to get a search warrant before it could unlock and access any identifiable information.

Can reviewing digital posts, text messages, emails and other digital data really identify a potential threat? I did some research and found that in every case of mass school violence, the shooter posted threatening messages on social media, used search engines to locate information about implementing a violent act, and/or even sent text messages, oftentimes weeks prior to the event. Using some of the search techniques I share in my programs, in less than a minute I found thousands of recent messages that contained concerning language (see above; I blurred the names).

Are these real threats and are the young people who made them serious? Probably not.

Yet knowing what we know today, should they still be taken seriously? Yes. And an automated system could enter these posts into an analytics engine, scour the combined digital database as described above, and determine if there is consistent messaging across multiple media by the same person. Then by comparing the data across billions of other data points - including the historic digital information and posts of those that ultimately did implement violence - the system could identify patterns and accurately determine the likelihood of a future act. At the least, these young people could be offered help and a caring person ready to listen, which ultimately might stop the violent thinking before it mutates out of its digital form. Unfortunately - or fortunately depending on where you reside on the privacy debate - companies including Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. do not make their data available to others and certainly not the government. They take such a firm stance on privacy because they value liberty, and from a business and marketing standpoint, they must do so if they are to attract and retain users. Yet possibly an independent organization aggregating anonymous data might provide the separation necessary for this solution to fit within the participating organizations' business models. Yes, this solution is controversial. But it is infinitesimally less controversial than trying to modify the Second Amendment. And thus, it can be implemented rapidly.

What can you do? If you believe this is a valid solution, contact your legislator and demand that he/she require social media, mobile, social media, and other digital data companies - that by the way, make their money using tax-payer funded Internet service - to work on a private/public partnership that leverages big data and analytics to identify future threats. Yet also know that simultaneously, you are advocating for giving up some of your basic privacy rights.

As a society, we all need to determine what liberties we are willing to lessen for the security of our children.