Former Senator Joseph Lieberman recently charged that mistakes by U.S. security agencies were responsible for failing to stop the Boston Marathon bombing. I recently wrote about how mass surveillance makes this kind of recrimination inevitable, because once a government agency spies on a person, they become in a sense responsible for any actions that that person takes. To paraphrase Colin Powell, we might sum it up as “You surveil him, you own him.”
I recently came across a good analogy for why it’s deceptively hard for security agencies to detect and stop out-of-nowhere terrorist attacks like the Boston bombing—and why mass surveillance isn’t likely to help. It comes from the book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by the physicist and writer Leonard Mlodinow, in a discussion of Brownian motion.
Brownian motion, you may recall, is the random jiggling of molecules in a liquid or other substance. A dye molecule floating in a seemingly still glass of water will randomly move about, covering about an inch in three hours, buffeted by random collisions with the smaller water molecules that surround it.
What would it take to actually explain the motion of that molecule? This is where the parallel to anti-terrorism efforts comes in. Mlodinow points out, “In any complex string of events in which each event unfolds with some element of