Could high-tech tools have prevented Pittsburgh's shooting?

Could high-tech tools have prevented Pittsburgh's shooting?
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The heinous mass murder at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh once more leaves us asking: Can nothing be done? Can’t we use our technological power to warn in advance of the killers in our midst, to prevent them from taking innocent lives?

After all, the suspect in the Pittsburgh attack posted plenty of flashing-red statements on at least one social media site.


History has provided inflection points in dealing with crime and terrorism. Notably, Oct. 1, 1908, was a seismic shift in crime. That was the year the Model T was introduced, and crime and criminals became more mobile than law enforcement. The Bureau of Investigation was created just months earlier, in July 1908. (The modern name of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was adopted on July 1, 1935.)

The automobile created significant issues in the 1920s for local law enforcement, which had no authority to pursue notorious bank robbers and other criminals across state lines. So Congress passed laws extending the authority of the FBI to investigate bank robbery and kidnapping. Although kidnapping for ransom is not extinct, nor is bank robbery, it’s been trending down for years ever since.

In Pittsburgh, alleged shooter Robert Bowers murdered 11 people and wounded four police officers and two other people. As in numerous crimes before, and more to come, the suspect reportedly broadcast his intentions on social media, including a post just moments before his attack: “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

On Feb. 14, another accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, opened fire at Marjory Stoneman High School in Florida, killing 17 students and teachers. I wrote about that case, highlighting his social media posts that provided major clues about his intentions:

  • “I whana (sic) shoot people with my AR-15.”
  • “I wanna (sic) die Fighting killing s**t ton of people.”
  • “I am going to kill law enforcement one day they go after the good people.”
  • “Im (sic) going to be a professional school shooter” — a post he signed with his real name.
  • “I could have done better,” referencing a different mass shooting in New York.  

As I’ve said before, criminals rarely make appointments but they do leave clues — just like Cesar Sayoc Jr., arrested and charged with multiple federal crimes for allegedly sending pipe bombs through the mail. His social media postings are being dissected by law enforcement, looking for additional clues. But indicators and warnings were there — they just weren’t obvious. Buried in the swamp of the internet, it can be hard to see the blinking red lights.

That has to change. 

After 9/11, I worked on several projects that were important in how information and intelligence was shared. First, there was “Technology Exploration Development” for the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), Joint Counterintelligence Assessment Group (JCAG). The ability to quickly collect and analyze various forms of threat information were critical in helping the intelligence community produce actionable intelligence.

From there I worked at the Department of Justice on OneDOJ and wrote the concept of operations for how DOJ would share information with 18,000 federal, tribal, state and local law enforcement agencies

Our first win was in response to the DC Sniper. The key piece of evidence that tied all the cases together were the ballistics — but there were competing federal systems at the time; the FBI had Drugfire, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had IBIS (Integrated Ballistics Information System). The systems didn’t talk to each other, nor could they share information. That didn’t make sense to a former state trooper and detective like me. Even though I valued my independence, I knew it took teamwork to make a case. 

John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, issued an order stating there would be one, and only one, ballistics system and the ATF would be the repository. The National Integrated Ballistic Information Network was born and is the only federal database used by all law enforcement agencies.

At one time there were 12 separate terrorist watch-lists. Based on my work at DOJ, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials awarded a team, of which I was part, the contract to consolidate those lists. Now there is one that is centrally managed.

Had there been one list all along, there would have been a chance to identify, early on, one of the key 9/11 hijackers: In April 2001 Nawaf al-Hazmi was stopped and ticketed by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. In August he was placed on a then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) watch-list to prevent entry into the country he already was in.

There are numerous such examples, but there is one unifying theme: Fragmentation of resources and information-sharing has never stopped a violent act, whether it be crime or terrorism. At some point, it makes sense to create a single resource, agency or capability to solve a very large problem.

That point, that time, is today. As much as I love my law enforcement brothers and sisters, the problem of mining social media for indicators and warnings of potential acts of violence or terrorism has exceeded the capacity of state and local law enforcement to monitor, manage and respond. Just as it took John Dillinger to help reform the laws on interstate crimes like bank robbery, the arrest of Robert Bowers should help the American public to reform and rethink how we handle social media.

Google can predict what you’re about to type in Gmail; type a search term in Google and see what shows up in Facebook ads. Amazon knows what you’re going to buy before you do, and they serve up suggestions that make you wonder if they actually can read your mind.

Artificial intelligence has the promise of sorting through mountains of data points to find that blinking red light, that needle, buried in a sea of other blinking lights. Machine learning can increase the speed and precision of the human decision-making loop. Yet, none of these technologies and approaches can work if done in a fragmented, uncoordinated way.

The deliberate application of technology can be used to help solve a very big problem, but it will have to be at the federal level. The concept of national fusion centers has some promise, but there are only 70 of them to cover 50 states, 3,200 counties and 19,000 cities.

When you go looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s a waste of time to make the haystack smaller. You need a bigger magnet. The government needs to come up with that bigger magnet.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.