Privacy vs Security – The online conundrum

Online-PrivacyIn the wake of yet another mass murder, police departments in the United States are scrambling to find ways to avoid such tragedies in the future. The NYPD (New York Police Department) are looking to the internet to alert them to possible individuals who are likely to be involved in a murder spree.

The plan is to use an online algorithm to search social media and possibly email and instant messaging for words and phrases that have been used in the past by those disturbed individuals who would later go on to commit mass murder. Critics will be very quick to point out that Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the most recent and hideous tragedy, did not actually have an online presence.

While it is unclear as to the online presence of James Holmes, the alleged gunman who killed 12 people at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, in hindsight there were multiple red flags in the form of buying multiple guns, attempting to join a gun club, concerns from friends, and even his phone voice mail which was enough to raise concern to the owner of the gun club.

If the NYPD‘s search had been operational, would it have found online comments from friends discussing about their concerns about Holmes? If combined with a registry of recently purchased firearms, might it have put two and two together?

With many gun owners in the United States firmly against any sort of control or tracking of firearms, a secure federal database would perhaps be a more satisfactory option for the firearm backlash that is sweeping the nation. Certain types of weapons, such as the semi-automatic with a 100 round barrel magazine, could be automatically highlighted but with no other indications for concern, ignored or at least relegated to a lower priority level.

The debate over gun control in the States is a very contentious issue and one that is perhaps best left to those with more information and understanding but even the most passionate firearm owners would agree that something must be changed to avoid another horrific incident. A compromise of tighter restrictions along with more cooperation from firearm owners could be the way forward. While the owner of a gun club may not wish to report to the authorities about an individual who is acting suspicious, who better than those who spend their time around firearms and firearm owners to recognize something amiss?

While the privacy concerns of firearm owners are understandable and to be expected, the online privacy concerns will far outweigh them. To allow their online private and personal information searched by governments would be far worse than the attempt by social media websites to use collected information about users. For example, each and every time that Facebook announce changes or even just proposed changes to their terms of service with regards to privacy and the use of users information, the uproar is loud and widespread, often reported by the major media organizations.

If an early warning system such as the one proposed by the NYPD is to work, everyone, from firearm owners to internet users, are going to have decide if their privacy and perceived rights are worth the risk of having another 20 young children being murdered. Perhaps it is time that everyone realises that while personal information is important, the lives of children are far more important.

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