Could the next mass shooting be prevented by a simple Google search?
In the wake of the deadly massacre last week at a Connecticut elementary school, New York police officials want to scour the Web for chatter that could identify the next deranged gunman before he can carry out his plot.
Police officials say the technique would be similar to their method for catching potential terrorists online, though they did not provide details. Some methods being considered include an algorithm that crawls emails and Internet postings for terms used by active shooters in the past that might indicate the intentions of future shooters, according to The New York Times.
"The goal would be to identify the shooter in cyberspace, engage him there and intervene, possibly using an undercover to get close, and take him into custody or otherwise disrupt his plans," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, according to the Times.
Details of the program -- such as what potential terms the algorithm would search for -- remain unclear. A spokesman for the New York police department did not return a request for comment.
But one expert said the idea of searching millions of online posts to identify a mass murderer would be technically difficult, and could lead to people being wrongfully suspected.
Richard Berk, a statistics and criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that, statistically, there have not been enough mass shooters in recent history to create a reliable algorithm that spots patterns in their online writing.
"You don't have very many cases, thankfully," he said. So you don’t have enough information to develop a profile for people who are likely to be a risk. It's like trying to study what causes cancer when you only have four or five cancer patients."
The idea could also present other challenges for law enforcement. If Google shared search data in real time with authorities, for example, the deluge of queries would be overwhelming, Slate's Will Oremus noted back in June.
"Any police department that tried to track down all the searches for 'how to dispose of a body without getting caught' would quickly find itself overwhelmed," Oremus wrote.
While the idea of using the Web to thwart mass shooters is still in its infancy, researchers and governments have been looking at other ways to harness Google's predictive power to guess behavior, criminal or otherwise.
A PhD student at Harvard, for example, has created an algorithm that scours Google searches to track Mexican drug cartels. And in Britain, a proposed law would force Internet providers to monitor search queries for terms that might identify people who are considering committing suicide.