June 3, 2022
As with almost every previous active shooter event, the initial investigation of the Uvalde tragedy paints a familiar picture: an apparently dissociated individual, exhibiting increasingly violent tendencies and threatening behavior over many years (some of which they expressed openly online), steals or purchases a weapon, and attacks a soft target they were familiar with – either through pre-attack casing, or a location they grew up near. The question asked after every one of these incidents: how do we stop the next one?
At first blush, the task seems almost impossible. How does a school, or any other location, maintain 24/7/365 vigilance? The short answer is, they can’t. There is also no single piece of legislation, training course, or technology that can accomplish this either. To truly prevent (rather than react to) the next active shooter incident, will require a holistic approach to security, involving the collection of various streams of intelligence; combined with threat awareness training for the people onsite; software to scan Social Media for threats; technology and physical improvements to harden the target; and, above all, the willingness of everyone involved to report suspicious and threatening activity whenever and wherever they see it. Employing just one of these solutions on its own is not enough.
By way of example: There has been demand for “social media scraping tools” over the past several years. The concept is fairly straightforward: draw a geofence around your location, type in a set of key words you want to be alerted on, and then sit back and let the information come to you. These scraping tools do work – unfortunately, often too well. Media reports indicate the Uvalde ISD had purchased a commercially available social media monitoring tool for their schools. We do not know what terms they were tracking, but would guess that “guns,” “shooting,” “ammo,” “kill” and similar terms may have been on the list of key words programmed into the system. Unfortunately, Uvalde is also one of the prime hunting locations in Texas. It is highly likely every single one of these key words is used hundreds of times a day by hunters in the area. These words also feature prominently in many online gaming forums for some of the most popular first-person shooting games around today. In short: whoever was tasked with reviewing the daily social media alert feed was probably overwhelmed and unable to separate the signal from the noise.
If, however, this same person was also receiving Suspicious Activity Reports from the general public, as well as law enforcement bulletins, and other streams of OSINT, they would stand a much better chance of detecting true threats and painting a more fulsome threat picture for local law enforcement on specific individuals. By combining various sources of intelligence, coupled with AI and other technologies, and having analysis done by SMEs in the areas of physical security and threat detection, schools and other soft targets can take a big step towards preventing these kinds of attacks in the future.
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