In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in America, loved ones grieve, gun control advocates call for common-sense reforms, and politicians suggest new “solutions” that won’t do anything about guns. These proposals frequently focus on mental health, but a new plan before the White House to monitor “neurobehavioral” predictors of violence isn’t just misguided, it’s terrifyingly dystopian.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the White House had been briefed on a plan to create an agency called HARPA, a healthcare counterpart to the Pentagon’s research and development arm DARPA. Among other initiatives, this new agency would reportedly collect volunteer data from a suite of smart devices, including Apple Watches, Fitbits, Amazon Echos, and Google Homes in order to identify “neurobehavioral signs” of “someone headed toward a violent explosive act.” The project would then use artificial intelligence to create a “sensor suite” to flag mental changes that make violence more likely.
According to the Post, the HARPA proposal was discussed with senior White House officials as early as June 2017, but has “gained momentum” after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The latest version of the plan, reportedly submitted to the Trump administration this month, outlined the biometric project called “SAFE HOME,” an acronym for “Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes.” A source told the newspaper that every time HARPA has been discussed in the White House “even up to the presidential level, it’s been very well-received.”
A copy of the plan obtained by the Post characterizes HARPA as pursuing “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence” and claims that “a multi-modality solution, along with real-time data analytics, is needed to achieve such an accurate diagnosis.” That’s a lot of vague buzzwords, but the general idea is clear: collect a wealth of personal data in order to flag mental status changes in individuals and determine whether those changes can predict mass violence. It’s an approach that strikes George David Annas, deputy director of the Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship Program at SUNY Upstate Medical University, as ridiculous.
“The proposed data collection goes beyond absurdity when they mention the desire to collect FitBit data,” Annas told Gizmodo. “I am unaware of any study linking walking too much and committing mass murder. As for the other technologies, what are these people expecting? ‘Alexa, tell me the best way to kill a lot of people really quickly’? Really?”
Less unusual is the effort to scapegoat people with mental health issues by suggesting their illness is a leading factor in these atrocities—even though that conclusion isn’t supported by data.
“Creating a watchlist of citizens who most likely will never act violently based on their mental health is a very dangerous proposal with major ethical considerations,” Emma Fridel, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University specializing in mass murder, told Gizmodo in an email. “Doing so to predict the unpredictable is utterly absurd.”
Fridel said that “literally any risk factor identified for mass shooters will result in millions of false positives,” adding that the most reliable risk factor is gender, and that most mass murderers are male. “Should we create a list of all men in the United States and keep tabs on them?” she said. “Although it would be absurd and highly unethical, doing so would be more effective than keeping a list of persons with mental illness.”
Annas expressed a similar sentiment. He pointed out that few mass shooters were diagnosed with mental illness beforehand, attaching an FBI fact sheet that includes data on mental illness and active shootings. “Many of the recent mass murders have been perpetrated by white supremacists with clear motives in this regard,” Annas said. “Racism is not a mental illness.”
The point isn’t that the government should be surveilling other demographic groups instead, but rather how alarming and unfounded the push to monitor people with mental illnesses is. “Advocating for ‘mental health reform’ in the wake of a mass shooting, without explaining why, is almost as much of a non-sequitur as advocating for the improvement of infrastructure after such an event,” Annas said.
And it isn’t just Republicans considering such proposals. Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to the Ohio and Texas mass shootings with a list of efforts Democratic candidates for president should endorse to improve gun safety. This included surveilling people with mental health illnesses, proposing the creation of a federal “mental health database” that would restrict access to guns for those on it. New York has already begun to compile such a list, which requires mental health workers to report any patient who appears likely to harm themselves or others—seemingly at any point in the future.
Aside from assuming a strong link between mental illness and violence, this kind of surveillance creates mistrust in the system, forcing people with mental health issues to consider whether getting help could put them on a federal watch list. “The only thing it would be likely to do is to further marginalize an already maligned minority who already deal with stigma,” Annas told Gizmodo, “and further discourage others from seeking care they might have otherwise sought out.”
Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, listed other negative consequences that could occur if such a database was disseminated, including making it more difficult to get on an airplane or get a loan. “There are real world implications if that knowledge gets out,” he said.
In the absence of gun reform, these political obsessions with surveillance through healthcare are a disservice to gun safety conversations and a disservice to a marginalized community.
“You could put a microchip in every person diagnosed with mental illness in this country and it would still do nothing to reduce mass shootings,” Metzl said, “if it wasn’t also accompanied by common-sense gun laws.”