Big Data

Data analytics won’t stop a madman

James Holmes, the suspected gunman in the Colorado theater shooting, made his first court appearance July 23.

James Holmes, the suspected gunman in the Colorado theater shooting, made his first court appearance July 23. // RJ Sangosti/AP

The original story misidentified the Colorado theater that was the scene of Thursday's shooting. It has been corrected.

Government officials do not have the hardware or the authority to collect and analyze the artillery receipts, health records and other data that could have signaled a threat was headed toward a Cinemark movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last Thursday, former federal officials said. Nor do Americans have the stomach to grant the government such intrusive powers, they added.

For example, experts point to a review of the FBI’s handling of the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, massacre that was released hours before the Colorado shooting. The report revealed the FBI did not have the technology to perform the kind of analytics that could have raised red flags about Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the psychiatrist charged with murdering 13 soldiers and civilians at the Army’s most populous military base in November 2009.

Both Hasan and the suspected theater shooter, James Holmes, a neuroscience graduate student, were trained to save lives, not take them. On the surface, they seemed unlikely criminals.

There were signs of abnormal behavior in Holmes before he allegedly murdered at least 12 moviegoers. CNN reported that Holmes bought online more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition, a Blackhawk urban assault vest, a Blackhawk Omega Elite triple pistol magazine, a Blackhawk Omega Elite M16 magazine pouch and a Blackhawk Be-Wharned silver knife.

A shooting range manager who reportedly found Holmes’ behavior odd apparently did not file a report alerting authorities to suspicious activity.

Even if the gun buys and strange conduct were flagged, the FBI may not have been able to determine there was probable cause for taking action. The bureau does not have the technology to analyze massive amounts of data scattered among disparate databases, according to Thursday’s Fort Hood report by former FBI Director William Webster.

The bureau’s data integration system “does not and cannot normalize and consolidate the FBI's Balkanized data stores or otherwise provide true interconnectivity of databases,” he wrote. In addition, large amounts of data slow the bureau’s electronic surveillance management program. Test searches produced wait times for results that took 20 seconds and longer, sometimes failing because of the time consumed by the search, the report said.

“The exponential growth in the amount of electronically stored information is a critical challenge to the FBI,” Webster said in the report.

Former Justice Department official Paul Wormeli said the gun rights lobby has successfully blocked the department from monitoring firearm sales in a way that “could ever possibly result” in analysis that would have nabbed Holmes.

“There may well be predictive analytics software that if implemented on a large enough scale would consider the purchases and other factors [such as mental health], but we can’t do this with guns let alone accessories,” said Wormeli, who served as deputy administrator of Justice’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

“To be brutally honest, I don’t think Congress or the American people would tolerate something so intrusive” as mining customer purchases and health records to stop crime, Wormeli said.

When the Homeland Security Department began vetting social media messages to eye potential attackers, citizens quickly objected to what they saw as Big Brother surveillance.

Holmes’ stockpiling of arms might have been noticed if there had been some connection to criminal or terrorist activity, said Daniel J. Gallington, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for territorial security at the Pentagon. Yet, “based on what is known about the Aurora shooter, is it at all probable that he was in fact identified in, on, or by one of these matrixes? Probably not,” he added.

The suspected killer apparently was buying fairly routine police tactical gear, available from multiple sources, and large quantities of ammunition, which many different kinds of people also purchase, he said. Many serious recreational shooters buy 500 or 1,000 rounds at a time to get a low bulk price, noted Gallington, now a senior adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank.

Information about such weapons purchases likely did not grab the attention of law enforcement officials, some experts said.

“I believe that in these incidents -- where a madman has emerged with intent to kill -- there is no silver bullet to deter such horrible harm to our rule of law and the well-being of the victims,” said Wormeli, now executive director emeritus of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, a nonprofit association of technology companies that promotes information sharing.

“We can increase our awareness that such madness does emerge from time to time, and take the kinds of precautions,” that AMC is taking by barring entry to masked moviegoers, “but these are only Band Aids. Expressing our sorrow and caring for the survivors is the most that society can truthfully do in the face of this kind of attack,” Wormeli said.

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// 12:04 PM ET