Column: Caution needed before waving ‘red flags’

  • Gov. Phil Scott signs three gun reform bills on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., on Wednesday , April 11, 2018. (Burlington Free Press - Glenn Russell)

For the Valley News
Monday, March 11, 2019

More than 15 years ago, I wrote an essay for Education Week titled “A Homeland Security Bill for Public Education” in which I advocated for legislation that would enable social service case managers, medical professionals, school district officials and police to share pertinent information. I reasoned that, because confidentiality pledges precluded the sharing of important information in a timely fashion, many children were receiving uncoordinated and inadequate services. I cited several of my own experiences in which such sharing would have benefited students and helped ensure safety in the schools.

Similar information-sharing efforts have emerged recently in the form of “red flag” laws, which would allow police or family members to petition the courts to have weapons taken away from individuals who are believed to pose an immediate risk to themselves or others. Vermont last year passed a law that would accomplish this by establishing what are known as “extreme risk protection orders.” In New Hampshire, an extreme risk protection order bill is now before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The notion of taking weapons away from individuals who might harm themselves or others seems eminently reasonable. Indeed, some politicians who reflexively oppose any effort to limit access to weapons, and even some National Rifle Association officials, are seemingly open to considering “gun violence restraining orders.”

Now, however, I am having second thoughts, at least when it comes to the sharing of data.

Motherboard, a web publication of Vice Media, recently published an article about the use of data collected by social service agencies, schools and police in Canada. According to documents obtained from Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, shared databases are being used to track the behavior of vulnerable people, including minors and the homeless, “with little oversight and often without consent.” At least two provinces, Ontario and Saskatchewan, have created a “risk-driven tracking database” that gathers information about people — children ages 12 to 17 were the most prevalent age group added to the database — including whether they use drugs, have been the victim of an assault or live in what is referred to as a “negative neighborhood.”

The database, Motherboard reported, “is part of a collaborative approach to policing called the Hub model that partners cops, school staff, social workers, health care workers, and the provincial government.”

That is all eerily similar to what I recommended in my 2003 Education Week essay. But what I did not foresee then was the advent of facial recognition technology, or the widespread use of data warehousing, or the avalanche of personal information that would be solicited, collected and shared by social media sites.

With all this technology in play, it would seem that some kind of fail-safe algorithm would be possible, some means of identifying at-risk individuals with laser-like accuracy. Such pinpointing would presumably target those likely to engage in mass shootings or similar crimes. But before we use this accumulated data, we need to address the bigger question of how and when to engage law enforcement, and how and when to compel an individual to seek treatment.

“As soon as you’re identified (as at-risk) it changes how people interact with you,” Valerie Steeves, a University of Ottawa criminologist, noted in a Vice News article on the use of the “Hub” model. “At that point, you become the problem: ‘We need to watch you, all the time, so we can fix you.’ ”

As someone who worked for six years as a high school disciplinarian, I found this critique to be compelling. I can recall how difficult it was for a student who misbehaved as a freshman to shed his or her image as a “troublemaker.” And, as we’ve seen in recent years, Google never forgets. We’ve all read stories of how an ill-advised post on social media — as much as poor grades or low SAT scores — can limit one’s opportunities (or undo one’s political career).

In other words, once you’re branded with a “red flag,” it’s hard to get rid of it.

I once thought the notion of data sharing, at least among those who had a student’s well-being at heart, was straightforward. Now I’m not so sure. If we hope to use the massive amounts of data we are collecting on individuals to screen them for “risky behavior” or “mental fitness,” we need to carefully craft the governing legislation and regulations, and set clear guidelines for the gathering and sharing of that data. Who owns it? Who has access to it? Who can buy it? How is it being used?

These questions are complicated and thorny. We presumably would want to know that someone who is planning a mass shooting has acquired a stockpile of weapons. But is everyone who is stockpiling weapons a threat? We might want to confiscate weapons from someone who is communicating online with ISIS recruiters. But what about someone who is spending a lot of time researching Arabic and Muslim websites?

Further, much of the information found online is inaccurate. I just Googled myself and got more than 36,000 results. The eighth item on the list is from a website called MyLife.com, which notes that I once lived in Portland, Ore. That is untrue. But there it is for all to see and draw their own conclusions.

I’m leaving it there because I can’t keep track of all the misinformation that is accumulating online. But I might feel differently if it identified me as someone “we need to watch, all the time, so we can fix him.”

Before we begin relying on data to wave “red flags” about people, we need to be sure we know who gathered the data and who shared it. And we need to be sure that we’re not making life-altering decisions based on inaccurate information.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.