On January 5th, 2018, a woman called the Federal Bureau of Investigation's public tip line to report something disturbing she'd seen online.
A family friend in Parkland, Florida, had just taken custody of two teenage brothers following the sudden death of their adopted mother, and, the woman explained, she was worried about one of them. On his Instagram page, the young man was declaring an affinity for terrorist groups like ISIS and posting photos of small, disemboweled animals, declaring that he'd killed them out of a need for revenge. Even worse were the photos he'd posted of a cache of weapons, which made it apparent that he was armed to the teeth. During a more than 13-minute call that day, the woman told the FBI agent she spoke with that she was worried about the young man "getting into a school and just shooting the place up."
"I just want someone to know about this so they can look into it," she said. "I just know I have a clear conscience if he takes off and, and just starts shooting places up."
The woman was the second caller in three months to contact the FBI's Public Access Line, about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old gunman who would go on to commit one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School just one month later. Despite their best intentions, neither she nor the Mississippi man who had first raised the alarm about the YouTube comments in which Cruz bragged about wanting to become a "professional school shooter" had been able to convince the FBI to take his threats seriously.
In the wake of the shooting in Parkland—during which Cruz killed 17 students and faculty members—those searching for answers about what had allowed such a dangerous young man to slip through the cracks quickly identified several key breakdowns that had been quietly festering within the FBI's call center for years.
For starters, the woman who had tipped investigators off to Cruz's Instagram presence that January had likely been one of around 3,540 callers the tip line had fielded that day—the average number of ledes the agency receives in any given 24-hour period. According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the already spread-thin tip line workers had also operated within a culture that prized "how quickly they processed calls and the follow-up checks of databases and prior tips."
In the case of the January tip about Cruz, the worker who had taken the call later told investigators that her supervisor had dismissed the case as having "no lead value" and instructed her to close the file—an account that the supervisor would subsequently dispute. The tip was never escalated to an FBI field office for investigation, and the agency has been forced to grapple with questions of its own negligence in the year since the tragedy occurred.
"The FBI could have and should have done more to investigate the information it was provided prior to the shooting," the deputy director of the FBI, David Bowdich, admitted during congressional hearings on the Parkland shooting in 2018. "While we will never know if we could have prevented this tragedy, we clearly should have done more."
Soon after the shooting, the FBI announced a series of top-down reforms to the way its public tip line was structured. In an August of 2018 letter to Representative Ted Deutch of Florida, FBI Acting Assistant Director Jill Tyson wrote that the agency planned to add 12 supervising agent roles and 50 staffers to its tip line office, and would also implement a two-tiered review system in order to more efficiently evaluate threats to life, counterterrorism, and criminal matters.
But subsequent investigations, including one conducted by the Sun-Sentinel last year, have found that FBI agents worry that the new protocols are designed to incentivize them to chase "pointless tips in an overly cautious system that fears a repeat of the Cruz debacle." And increased FBI surveillance has historically had weighty political implications for minority and immigrant communities—leading to additional concerns about the sweeping changes the new protocols will usher in.
After the September 11th, 2001, terror attacks led to a spike in anti-Muslim biases within the U.S., the FBI claimed to have followed more than 500,000 investigative leads—some of which were as vague as reports of five happy "Middle Easterners" having coffee at a Barnes & Noble in Nashua, New Hampshire. And in 2016, fearing that high school-aged students were, as one unclassified FBI document released in January of that year warned, the "ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists," the agency unveiled a program that encouraged teachers to spy on and flag students that might be susceptible to radicalization, even if they had not committed any wrongdoing.
Ivan Greenberg, the author of Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present, says that such programs are examples of how surveillance has historically held the potential to have a chilling effect on free speech and self-expression in the U.S. Tip lines in particular are often subject to abuses, he says: People have a tendency to use them to report people that they have existing racial biases against, or even for revenge against people they don't like. (While the FBI has not released numbers on false terror tips, ample anecdotal evidence of them exists.)
"There are serious civil liberty implications involving terrorism and crime tip hotlines," Greenberg says. "They can do as much harm as good. Most tips usually provide little positive information for law enforcement—we have the example of tens of thousands of calls to the FBI after 9/11, which included a large dose of anti-Arab sentiment."
Faithfully following each tip without getting smarter about how they are assessed, he adds, could also manufacture a problem akin to "drowning in data but starving for knowledge."
"Despite FBI assurances that they have increased staff to collect and analyze information from their tip hotlines, it still seems highly unlikely they'll be able to screen effectively thousands of daily calls," he says. "Fake tips can lead to invasive security investigations of wholly innocent people, and immigrants and people of color are likely to bear the brunt of unwarranted FBI spying."