Beware of those who promise to make you safer by taking away your freedom.
I received an email message last week that proposed to do just that.
The message began by noting that the man who stabbed 10 people in a St. Cloud mall last month “may have been inspired by radical Islamic groups.”
While acknowledging that the motives behind the attack are still under investigation, the message stated that the attack highlights “the need for early detection of warning signs and patterns of behavior that could indicate extremist views.”
Wow. Where have we heard that before?
The message continued, noting “Because radicalization efforts often start online and target young people, schools are well-positioned to be the first line of defense.”
Naturally, the sender of the message had a solution in mind.
Apparently, the CEO of the software company in question “can provide insight into how schools can use internet monitoring to detect potential instances of radical or violent ideologies among students and what schools can, and should [in his opinion] do to ensure the protection of the school and community and to help students before they do perform an act of violence.”
That is a slippery slope of epic proportions.
The phrase “detect potential instances of radical or violent ideologies” should be enough to scare us to death.
The message indicates that schools can use the company’s software to alert educators if students use selected keywords. Keywords can [according to the company] be used to detect any of a whole list of potential threats.
The company is poised to help schools monitor students’ online footprints, including social media sites.
The step from “innocent until proven guilty” to monitoring the private communications of innocent Americans searching for language that “may indicate” extremist views or the “potential” that an individual may, at some point in the future, represent a threat to others is a colossal leap toward abolishing freedom.
We aren’t talking about convicted criminals here, we are talking about monitoring the communication of ordinary citizens.
I would also question who gets to decide which magical keywords determine who “may” have “potentially” extreme views.
Who gets to decide what constitutes an extreme view?
For example, the message indicates the software will flag keywords related to weapons.
So if a couple students share messages about going duck hunting, are they going to end up on some list of potential terrorists because they mentioned guns?
It is reasonable for school districts to enforce a certain level of conduct within their schools.
However, the world has changed. More than ever, our lives are inextricably linked with electronic communications.
To subject citizens, whether they are students or adults, to a broad, open-ended monitoring of all of their personal correspondence under the guise of searching for words that may indicate what some people construe as extremist views is absurd.
This kind of scrutiny won’t make us safer. In fact, it may do just the opposite.
The flagrant broad-brush invasion of privacy proposed by this company is a blatant affront to our civil liberties, and it cannot be tolerated.
I hope that no school district in this country would seriously consider adopting such a policy of spying on students, but I’m concerned.
Sometimes, even those who know better are pressured to make bad decisions, especially in the wake of high profile cases in which civilians were hurt or killed.
Unscrupulous individuals use these tragedies to scare people into taking extreme measures in order to keep people safe.
We need to keep cool heads to assess whether or not what is being proposed will, in fact, make anyone safer.
This is an important question, because it seems that even in some cases where an individual has resorted to violence, law enforcement has had reason to suspect the individual, sometimes long before the violence took place, and was still unable to prevent the tragedy.
If it happens that a particular course of action seems practical as a means to improve safety, it should be evaluated carefully to ensure it is specific, reasonable, and transparent, and there is sufficient oversight to prevent abuse.
It is understandable that people want to keep their families and communities safe, but we must ensure that the treatment is not worse than the disease.