Boston Marathon Bombings

The Asymmetry Between Past and Future, and Why it Means Mass Surveillance Won’t Work

The Asymmetry Between Past and Future, and Why it Means Mass Surveillance Won’t Work

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:39am

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

The Burdens of Total Surveillance

The Burdens of Total Surveillance

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:33pm

Last week’s Washington Post report that the CIA had requested that Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev be placed on a terrorist watch list raises an interesting point about total surveillance societies: in addition to all their negative implications for citizens, they actually bring some disadvantages for the authorities as well.

It’s not clear what information the CIA’s request was based upon, but reportedly it came from Russian authorities. It is also possible that Tsarnaev’s communications were flagged by US agencies such as the NSA. Either way, it seems as though there’s a real possibility that Tamerlan’s name came to the attention of the authorities through some dragnet-style surveillance technique.

If so, the conundrum for the authorities is this:

The Constitution Applies to All Americans, No Matter What They Are Accused Of

The Constitution Applies to All Americans, No Matter What They Are Accused Of

By Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, ACLU at 12:28pm

Our country has been shaken by the events coming out of Boston in the past week. First, of course, there was the tragedy and loss of life...

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