Data

To Stop School Shootings, Fla. Will Merge Government Data, Social Media Posts

By Benjamin Herold — July 26, 2018 7 min read
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As part of their efforts to prevent school shootings, Florida lawmakers mandated the creation of a centralized database that will combine individual-level records from the state’s law-enforcement and social-services agencies with information from people’s personal social media accounts.

The provision, tucked within the 105-page law passed in March following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, marks a potentially dramatic increase in the state’s collection and sharing of data on individuals. While the new database could have big consequences for individual privacy and civil liberties, proponents described it as necessary to ensure public safety.

“What we saw after the Parkland tragedy is that there were clear [warning signs] that didn’t end up being followed through on or processed,” Fla. state senator Bill Galvano, a Republican who authored the bill, said in an interview. “It was very important that we create within our school system the opportunity to report the information that is out there, so that things are being captured and you don’t have one group knowing something and not sharing it with another group.”

To date, the far-reaching legislation, known as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, has garnered attention primarily for imposing new restrictions on access to guns, establishing a voluntary program to train and arm some school employees, providing $400 million for school mental health services and security measures, and establishing a new Office of Safe Schools within the Florida Department of Education.

But a mostly overlooked provision of the legislation also directs that new office to “coordinate with the Department of Law Enforcement to provide a centralized integrated data repository and data analytics resource to improve access to timely, complete, and accurate information.”

Work on the new repository has already begun. According to the law, data sources must include, at a minimum, the state’s departments of Children and Families, Law Enforcement, and Juvenile Justice; local law enforcement agencies; and “social media.”

Privacy experts, civil-liberties advocates, and researchers who specialize in “integrated data systems” around the country criticized the law as vaguely written and lacking in adequate safeguards.

“The people who created this system may not know the best practices, unintended consequences, and privacy pitfalls that occur when you combine all this information,” said Amelia Vance, the director of education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank.“They may have gone into this work with the best of intentions, but intentions don’t always shape how a law will play out in practice.”

‘Clear Messages That Were Not Acted Upon’

Across the country, dozens of existing integrated data systems—including at least two in Florida, with two more in Broward and Miami-Dade counties already under development—merge administrative data from various state and local government agencies. More than a dozen such systems include K-12 school districts.

Typically, integrated data systems use aggregated information for research and evaluation.

While a handful are used to provide case-management services to specific individuals, most only use individual data that have been de-identified, as part of large-scale statistical analyses looking for trends.

“The integrated data systems we work on are not about surveillance. They’re about improving our understanding of how policies and programs work,” said Della Jenkins, the executive director of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy, an initiative at the University of Pennsylvania that helps state and local governments link administrative data across agencies.

Jenkins said the type of data system outlined in the new Florida law represents a “marked departure” from those that currently exist, because of its potential to be used to flag individuals for possible-law enforcement actions, and the inclusion of information pulled from social media.

Galvano, the Florida state senator, said both steps are necessary to “close the gaps in communication” that occurred leading up to the Parkland massacre.

Confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz, who had previously been expelled from Stoneman Douglas, was well-known to local mental-health and law-enforcement agencies. Among his many troubling posts on social media was a threat to become a “professional school shooter.” Still, he was able to buy a high-powered assault rifle, enter the school’s campus, and kill 17 students and staff members.

As soon as Nikolas Cruz was identified as the shooter at Stoneman Douglas, law enforcement and the news media began scouring the troubled young man’s social-media accounts, which have since been deleted. This photo showing weapons lying on a bed was among those he posted to Instagram.

“How do you explain to a victim’s family that there were very clear messages that were not acted upon?” Galvano said.

Data Governance, Tech Solutions, and Legal Issues

The law passed in response to the Parkland shooting calls for the new database to be operational by December 1, 2018.

Efforts toward that goal have already begun, led by working groups focused on data governance, technology solutions, and legal considerations, according to Florida Department of Education press secretary Audrey Walden.

The centralized database will “allow users to search across multiple criminal justice databases” and “access multiple data sources” through a single application, Walden wrote in an email.

In addition, she added, “the data analytic resource is a monitoring tool that is intended to aid districts with social media monitoring services.”

Walden’s statement appears to reference services such as those offered by companies like Geo Listening and Social Sentinel, which have been aggressively pitching schools on the promise of algorithm-driven technologies to monitor students’ public social-media posts for everything from school-shooting threats to suicidal ideation. Walden said she could not answer additional questions seeking clarification, citing the state’s pending procurement process and confidentiality reasons.

Galvano, however, articulated a different vision for how information from social media might enter the state’s new data repository. He described it as “more of a reactionary thing,” in which citizens could report suspicious or threatening social media activity to a central database, which state workers might then “utilize for investigatory purposes, or for reaching out to or monitoring [the person] who might have said it.”

“It’s not intended to randomly surveil or monitor students without cause,” Galvano said. “If that’s how it starts to move, then we need to make adjustments.”

Evaluating Unintended Consequences

Such confusion is part of what’s driving the concerns of people like Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty & National Security Center at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Whatever the intent of Galvano and other lawmakers, Patel said, the actual legislation’s imprecise language seems to allow for open-ended vacuuming up of any and all social-media information, not just reported threats.

And even just the latter could allow for a great deal of unvetted, low-quality, and biased information to flood into the system, she said. Just look at the rash of recent incidents in which white people reported black people to law enforcement for “suspicious” activities such as sitting in a Starbucks, napping in a college dorm, and grilling in a park.

In addition, said Patel and other experts, it’s unclear exactly who will have access to the information in the new Florida database, what specific purposes the data can (and can’t) be used for, how it will be secured, how long it will be retained, or what rights individuals may have to review and contest the information that is held about them.

It’s also unclear how a new state system might interact with related local efforts.

Just last month, for example, a public-safety task force established in Broward County following the Parkland shooting recommended that the school district and area municipalities “initiate social-media monitoring protocols” and called for the expansion of the Broward County Data Collaborative, currently being developed with the help of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

For his part, Galvano said Florida’s new data system is a work in progress, and that he would “personally look out” to make sure that it doesn’t become a vehicle for privacy and civil-liberties abuses.

But experts said such concerns are typically resolved at the outset of the creation of such systems and detailed in data-governance documents and extensive legal and data-sharing agreements. Getting such an infrastructure in place by December 1 will likely prove a major challenge.

“Nobody wants to allow another school shooting to happen,” Patel said. “But we have to be clear about the purposes of this system, how we ensure that the information that goes into it is not rife with error and bias, and how we avoid casting suspicion on a very broad range of kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Florida to Create New Database to Stop School Shootings

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