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Robert Bennett: After Aurora, tension increases between protection, privacy

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

After mass shootings that preceded the recent one in Colorado, the question of psychological profiling was raised. Are there any psychotic indicators, any specific behaviors, that might warn that a certain individual is a likely perpetrator of such a crime? If so, could they be monitored? And what should be done when a signal of potential trouble appears? After studying the matter, the search for such a profile was dropped because it was determined that it would give off "false positives" that would apply to many people who had serious psychological problems but no tendencies towards murder.

The details of the Colorado shooting has reopened the subject in a different form — transactional profiling. The Colorado suspect bought several guns, including an automatic weapon and 6,000 rounds of ammunition from several sources in a relatively short period of time. Each one of these actions involved a financial transaction. Federal security agencies have the ability to monitor transactions on the part of al-Qaida suspects and take action; is it possible to create computer algorithms that could, by analyzing patterns of transactions of the public at large, identify a private individual who is likely to commit mass murder?

And, if it is possible, should it be done?

These questions are at the heart of a dilemma that arises from the technology of the Information Age. We all want physical security — protection from those who would steal from or physically harm us — and cheer when the government's ability to provide security is enhanced. At the same time, we all want privacy, and we recoil at the idea that the government has a capacity to spy on us. High tech surveillance tools and methods enhance the government's ability to do both.

Ironically, the greatest threat to privacy in the Information Age has come from outside of government — social media and the Internet. Millions and millions of Americans go on Facebook and give away huge amounts of data about their personal lives every day. Other millions (or perhaps the same ones) use personal blogs as diaries, recording the most intimate details of their acts and their thoughts where anyone can read them. The police states that existed under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union would have loved this.

Those who fear the loss of their privacy through Facebook and blogs can solve the problem simply by staying away from them. However, staying away from government monitoring is not as easy. Whether one approves of it or not comes down to a question of trust. When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11, those who trusted the government to use the act to go after terrorists were for it; those who distrusted the government and were afraid it would use the act to monitor innocent lives were against it.

I am a truster. I fully understand that government officials can and do foolish and even bad things, but America is not a police state. We do not spy on our citizens to keep them under governmental control, and the Patriot Act demonstrates that. It has been a very useful tool in the fight against al-Qaida without ever once being used to access library records of ordinary citizens, as some claimed it would be. Nonetheless, the dilemma is a real one.

In law enforcement, new techniques for monitoring behavior are creating significant breakthroughs. In our personal lives, privacy is eroding in a significant way. Tension between these two facts is an issue that is now a permanent part of the political landscape.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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