Background checks for the 21st century

The recent shooting sprees in the US led President Donald Trump to look into changing the law to include preliminary background checks for gun buyers.

October 7, 2019 22:32
A MEMBER of Congress wears a sticker during a news conference announcing the introduction of biparti

A MEMBER of Congress wears a sticker during a news conference announcing the introduction of bipartisan legislation to expand background checks for sales and transfers of firearms in January. . (photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)

The recent shooting sprees in the US led President Donald Trump to look into changing the law to include preliminary background checks for gun buyers. The interesting question is what those checks will include. Will they be the traditional and outdated background checks, or will they be adapted to meet the changing conditions of the 21st century?

To understand this issue, imagine a person standing on a soapbox at the city center and loudly calling for a certain minority group to be killed.

When he’s done with his diatribe, he goes into the nearest gun store and asks to buy a firearm and ammunition. Should he be allowed to do so?

 Social media is the new “town square,” and technology allows us to be “present” at many squares around the world simultaneously. How should one conduct oneself in such a situation? Those of us who believe that such incidents are negligible or theoretical should be reminded that many of the various attackers saw fit to express their intentions on social media before proceeding to carry out their murderous acts. Advanced enforcement technologies allow enforcement entities to monitor and detect these threats, and re-invoke legal dilemmas of the clash between freedom of expression and the personal security of citizens.

Security entities worldwide have for some time been making extensive intelligence use of advanced capabilities for the detection, collection and processing of the huge amount of information located online, in the pursuit of noble causes such as the prevention of terrorism and the saving of lives, all the while enjoying the confidentiality and concealment of their course of action. While police and other enforcement entities also wisely realized the immense value of the vast information located online and have been making use of it, economic and commercial entities have only just begun to grasp the great potential embodied in this field. However, there is no doubt that the use of these capabilities is still in its infancy in the economic world in general, and in Israel in particular.

As always, the first entities to adopt these advanced capabilities are those that have a direct influence on the profit-and-loss line, such as online payment and clearing companies; the advertising entities who use the information in order to achieve a more accurate segmentation and reach their target audiences; and some of the banks around the world that have implemented these capabilities as part of the “know your client” (KYC) checks they conduct and of their war on money laundering. However, there is no doubt that in the future, every financial action will be accompanied by preliminary open-source intelligence (OSINT) checks. This is true for banks and insurance companies, as well as for retail companies.

The investigations concerning money laundering and the immense fines recently faced by the large Israeli banks in the US have put a much sharper focus on the subject, and have signaled to financial entities what course of action they were required to take. Furthermore, at the next stage, shareholders and the board of directors will also demand the implementation of these advanced systems in their preliminary checks, so as to reduce their company’s exposures to both external and internal risks.

A BRIEF review of the state of affairs in other fields further refines the question of whether it is reasonable for a considerable part of the daily control mechanisms in our lives to still rely on traditional checks, which have not changed for the past 40 years or more; checks which were put in place before the age of the Internet, some of which were even associated with professions that have since died out. Should we accept such a state of affairs, or is it time to implement advanced checks in institutional and other entities that are with us throughout our daily lives?

The traditional checks required on admittance to sensitive positions occasionally include the requirement to furnish a “certificate of good standing.” Checks of this type often do not provide a high-quality indication, seeing as the vast majority of the population has had no previous record with law enforcement entities, and would therefore present a “clean sheet.” However, this seems to be a minimal threshold, which is no longer sufficient. Would you let a person who is a member of racist online groups and who disseminates inciting and violent texts be admitted as a teacher in the school system and teach your child – even though he has a “clean” criminal record and can show a certificate of good standing? This is also true for an armed security guard at a public institution, for the foreign worker serving as your parents’ long-term care provider, or in countless other examples of people admitted to sensitive positions without undergoing any background check whatsoever.

Advanced OSINT tools can help in solving an additional, and no less important, problem: the ability to conduct regular checking and inspection of changes over the course of a period of time, as opposed to a one-time check upon the person’s admission. This is a complex issue which many of us fail to consider: it may be that the person we hired several years ago has, during that time, gone through upheavals and changes which now impair his eligibility for the position, but of which we would often be entirely unaware.

In conclusion, it should be noted that even though the world of OSINT is based on public information located online, it is still not a magical solution devoid of complexities; such complexities being, first and foremost, the delicate balances required when we are faced with the individual’s desire for privacy. Nevertheless, it appears that the use of advanced technology, the foremost of which being artificial intelligence, now allows us to create control mechanisms which achieve a proper balance between minimal intrusion of one’s privacy on the one hand and high alerting and control capabilities on the other.

The writer is an advisory board member at BLER Systems, and a former director of the intelligence and technology department and senior management member at Israel Securities Authority (ISA).

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