Monday, October 3, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

While the prospect of school shootings is horrifying over-reaction is not a solution...

In his opinion piece titled Mining Student Data Could Save Lives, Lieutenant Michael Morris of the University Police at California State University-Channel Islands thinks data mining university networks is a possible preventative to a Virginia Tech sort of scenario.

My reply to The Chronicle of Higher Education reads as follows:

Dear Lt. Morris,

I am pleased your opinion piece is just that – opinion – because if it were your department’s policy your institution would have a variety of ethical, legal, and technical hurdles to surmount. Your ideas around data mining for mental health data should have been labeled with some serious yet rudimentary caveats.

“It is a form of behavioral surveillance, and it can be used to predict, with amazing accuracy, the propensity for a person's future behavior.“

Please cite the research that demonstrates the effectiveness of data mining for the prevention of workplace and school violence.

“Although university administrators may resist the idea of passive behavioral surveillance of the campus community because of privacy considerations, the truth is that society has been systematically forfeiting its rights to online privacy…”

Individuals may choose to share personal information with service providers but that does not mean all citizens (or college students) have surrendered their constitutionally guaranteed rights (1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments for starters).

“…his sweating hands firmly clutched the grips of the twin Glock 22 pistols he had ordered online.”

“…shopped online for high-powered firearms…”

While it’s tempting to lead with a lurid example they are more effective absent factual errors. As you well know, while a person might shop for firearms on-line they are purchased in highly regulated face to face transactions. In the case of handguns they cannot be purchased by persons under 21 years of age. What’s more, California citizens are further protected by a state ban on high capacity magazines.

“An important distinction would have to be made between violations of the law and violations of campus policy, and established guidelines would have to be followed to ensure the student's rights to due process.”

What shall your department do with all the other contraband you encounter during this electronic dragnet? File sharing, use of bootleg software, and possession of illegal pornography all represent violations of the law. Can you, as a law enforcement officer, overlook such items in the interest of pursuing a health and safety interest? After that, how do you propose to winnow through all the false positives to get at the potentially serious cases? Finally, given that homicidal ideation rarely results in deadly action on what grounds will your department pursue investigation, corrective action, suspension, dismissal, or involuntary treatment for thought crimes?

Gratefully workplace and school shootings are very rare. When potential cases are brought to the attention of law enforcement professionals like yourself your community can count on you to make use of every lawful means to prevent harm. Please look into the many ethical, legal, and technical impediments to your current concept. Reasoned discourse on this important topic is of great value to all. Thank you for putting your opinions out there.