Massacre in Aurora, Colorado

I keep this blog as an outlet for myself to write about things that I think about, experience, bother me, etc. I also keep it as a running record of things that happen at points in my life– maybe something to look back on later in my life– and I would be doing a disservice to myself and this record of life to not mention the massacre that occurred the other night at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Returns in Aurora, Colorado.

In this terrible event, a 24 year old former PhD student devised a ruse– donning full gear including gas mask, throwing tear gas into a full theater– and opened fire on innocent theater-goers, at this point having killed 12 individuals and injuring over 50, some still in critical condition. From what it sounds like in the press, he then gave in to police reasonably quietly and now is being held and the mystery of what happened within the mind of this clearly deranged individual is just now being unraveled.

There’s nothing that I can say, either guessing what he was thinking or expressing concern over what this incident says about gun violence and gun laws, safety in public places, etc, that won’t come out derivative and empty given that I don’t have anything distinct to say other than it’s all so very unfortunate and that events like this make us realize that we can face danger in even the most innocuous of life events. This is not the first incident of mass violence inflicted upon innocent persons by a social outcast/miscreant and sadly it won’t be the last. I do want to say what is obvious: that this is terrible and so sad and I hope those impacted by the circumstances recover quickly.

One of the things that is being reported now is all the stuff that happened up to the point of the event itself. It is reported that the suspect, James Holmes, had four weapons on him at the time of the shooting, including an assault rifle. (As an FYI, I am using this updated report as the basis of what I am reporting.) He had 6,000 rounds of ammunition which he had purchased online. He had booby trapped his apartment with explosives under the following planned scenario: a timer would set off a radio to blast music at his apartment at 11-12ish at night, police would be called, the devices would be detonated at the point of entrance, police and fire crews would be busy tending to injuries at the apartment thus constraining services available to those he would injure/kill during the shooting.

Considering how much stuff he bought online, there clearly is a lengthy and substantial digital history. I’d guess that the purchases were fragmented (assuming he was reasonably bright and didn’t want to tip anybody off if such a warning system existed). So even if there was a digital footprint, perhaps it wasn’t aggregated with a single vendor. Perhaps he used multiple credit cards (so as not to tip off his bank or credit card provider). I should point out that I’m just speculating on all of this– I don’t know and I don’t know if it’s been reported if he went out of his way to manage his digital footprint. But I think this element is interesting so I’m using it as the basis of this post.

Having worked at Google, I know that data exists. Lots of data exists. Big data is a new buzz word in the tech world, basically indicating that companies have a lot of transactional, behavioral, marketing-oriented, etc information at their disposal and it is imperative that they find ways to manage and extract value from all this data in order to be efficient and effective at their game. It is worth noting that historical data, when looked at on a bigger framework, can be regressed to create pretty strong predictive models. So basically, a company is calculating what you have done, what others have done, and are perfectly serving you communications and offers that you cannot possibly resist.

The idea of data prediction doesn’t stop at business. I recently saw a headline indicating that police departments are using predictive modeling algorithms to manage crime. I’m not sure if this was the article but it’s one of many. Sound familiar? Remember that movie Minority Report? It was about the future where Tom Cruise is a police officer and can arrest people before they commit crime based on some kind of future-seeing technology. I don’t know if the movie was considered sci-fi but I’ll be honest: I (and I would think most people who live in Silicon Valley) looked at the movie and thought: yeah, that’s doable. It can happen. Even the technology itself, with the protagonist waving around parts of his screen, looked very doable. Isn’t it basically what stuff like Xbox Kinect is?

I have a ton of other examples but I am a really boring person and suspect that more examples would only bore you. So I’ll stop. But focusing on crime and being able to predict a person’s likely behavior or intentions based on a digital footprint– it’s doable but would it be ok to use this data to actually try to stop something like the shooting in Aurora? For example, if Experian was able to report that a person was buying products, we’ll say “of interest,” could it report this as a possible crime in progress requiring attention by the police? This could be ammunition, guns, large amounts of rat poison (an anti-coagulant put into homemade bombs with ball bearings so that people get cut and their blood cannot clot), etc. I mean: it rattles my brain that every time I go to Target to buy Zyrtec-D (which contains pseudoephedrine, the chemical that is boiled down to make meth) I have to present my driver’s license. But this guy over a short period of time can purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition and that goes undetected? Something is wrong.

A side note to this idea of predictive behavior is the idea of “stop and frisk”– a controversial policy recently brought up by SF Mayor Ed Lee as a way to manage spikes in violent crime. The idea is that police would be given the option to stop and frisk anybody that they felt looked suspicious. This, of course, sounds terrible as it is basically a nicer way to say “racial profiling.” In essence– it is a way for police officers to have the freedom to harass people based off of gut-feeling and will likely lead to minorities (mainly blacks and Latinos) being targeted solely due to race. The whole issue is more complicated– I’m basically summarizing the main protest to the policy. Also, one would wonder if, had such a bill existed in Aurora, Holmes would have been frisked at any point. He was white, clean-cut and innocuous looking– probably would not have been deemed “suspicious” by police officers. He was also, as evidenced by events, the most dangerous person probably ever to have set foot in that town.

So what do we think? Should something like this be proactively monitored? Could future incidents be prevented? Is a strong indication of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind” and used as an indication of planning and forethought in the commission of a crime) enough for police to get involved? Should our digital footprint be more strongly linked to us as a major facet of who we are and what we do/will do? Should we really be granted any freedom as individuals if predictive modeling could be beneficial to our safety and well-being?

Wishing peace to all those impacted in Aurora.

— DOA

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