Twenty years on from the Columbine Massacre, in which teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on a shooting spree, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others, it’s tragic that massacres in schools are still happening. In the US alone, there were a dozen incidents recorded this year.
Now schools are turning to technology for aid and as a measure to limit the death toll.
Adrian Timberlake, technical director of Seven Technologies Group, shares his opinion on which current and developing technologies may have prevented the Columbine Massacre and predicts what kind of technological defence we will need to end these tragedies once and for all.
Harris posted death threats to another student, Brooks Brown, online and also posted about experimenting with making pipe bombs and his and Klebold’s vandalism. This would certainly warrant a thorough investigation today, but the clues as to Harris’ state of mind, revealed online, were missed by police and reports on Harris’ online activity from Brown, were not taken seriously enough.
Algorithms could potentially recognise patterns in searches online, viewed content and posted content, such as keywords and regularity, and flag the IP address or user to police. But there is potential to be too vigilant here and mar the results: the main focus in determining a pattern and threat level should be frequency. It wouldn’t be helpful for the algorithm to pick up on a crime novelist’s research, for example, as too many of these incidents would undermine public trust in such a system. Key-phrases would have to be specific and the threshold for a threat alert would have to be reasonable, to avoid targeting innocent members of the public.
Our web browser data is already being analysed for marketing purposes, but similar algorithms could be used for a far more noble cause: to provide better security. Receptions to targeted advertising is mixed but judging by how facial recognition technology has been received thus far, we predict that algorithms designed to identify threats would be seen as an invasion of privacy.
Background of addresses, financial history and details of education and past employment is information that we give out on a fairly regular basis, and this is seen as necessary for background and referencing checks or new employment. It could be argued that this is also an invasion of privacy, for strangers to delve into our personal histories, but these practices have been accepted because the benefits of enhanced security are clear.
The introduction of algorithms that could predict threats ultimately hinges on one question: do we care more about privacy, or potentially preventing tragedies such as the Columbine Massacre?
The general public reaction to facial recognition cameras, or even CCTV, is mistrust. Harris and Klebold walked into the school with bombs and guns, although initially concealed in bags. They were picked up on CCTV camera and were not intercepted.
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Facial recognition technology is used to identify or monitor known criminals and predators. The data on whom to target usually comes from police personnel and would include details on persons with a criminal record or involvement with the police, which may have included Harris and Klebold, as both were arrested and charged for a theft not long before the massacre. Facial recognition technology may have flagged their suspicious behaviour in the canteen but unfortunately, at the time, this type of technology was limited to use in the defense sector and was much less evolved and accurate as it is today.
There was no need to use facial recognition to attempt to identify the killers after the massacre, but it could have been a critical preventative measure.
Although the technology is, unsurprisingly, thought to solely recognise faces, some systems can also recognise objects, such as guns. We are developing i7ense, an autonomous device that is capable of identifying faces and weapons at long-range and will alert authorities to any threat and whom the would-be perpetrators are. If this system had existed in 1999, in the time that the killers spent trying to set off the bombs in the cafeteria, armed authorities might have already arrived to intercept them and possibly have saved the lives of their many victims.
Facial recognition for the purposes of home security is currently being considered in New York, US, and has been implemented in parts of China. The cameras replace key fobs or keys as access to entry and home security. Only authorised persons gain access to the building.
The same security system could be applied to schools in the US, as it has been to some extent, in Chinese schools. But it has yet to be taken as far as the technology providing security for every classroom and common area in a building. Some people would believe this to be an extreme solution, but currently, schools in the US are using technology that can monitor the location of gunmen in the building but are not making use of technology to prevent them from entering classrooms.