As you almost definitely heard, there was a scandal where an NSA whistleblower said that the NSA was recording a database of all phone calls and all E-Mails. More precisely, they were recording metadata, a list of the parties to each E-Mail and phone call. Given that information, it is possible to determine a lot about each person.
For another example, whenever your cell phone is on, that enables GPS tracking of your location, based on what cell towers you can connect to and the time it takes for a signal to reach the cell tower. It wasn’t clear if the NSA tracked this information, or it is merely stored by the phone corporation for years, in the event of a subpeona. Allegedly, there is an automated way for police to request information from certain providers, such as Google, Verizon, AT&T, Facebook, etc., without requiring manual review of each request.
40-50 years ago, there were many scandals where State spying power was abused. That led to sharp restrictions. However, when secret spying programs operate, it’s impossible for non-insiders to object, because they’re secret. Now, the State has almost unlimited electronic surveillance power. That comes from technological advancements, plus laws that give them more leeway.
This data collection is “legal” due to a technicality. All the information is collected, but only “approved queries” may be run against the data. Allegedly, no request has ever been rejected. The “oversight” is a secret. It’s impossible to tell if the information is used responsibly.
Suppose that you are charged with a crime based on this “illegally” collected data. Can you challenge it in court? Not necessarily. Suppose a policeman reviews the secret database and decides you’re guilty. Then, he uses other information during his investigation, such as “I smelled marijuana outside his apartment, so I searched it.” The State police don’t have to disclose that the secret database led to your imprisonment, because they will only present other evidence in your trial.
Allegedly, the Patriot Act is primarily used to stop drug dealers.
By itself, collecting information is not evil. If the police could be trusted to only use the information to solve real crimes, there would be no problem. (A real crime is murder, assault, or destruction of property.)
The real problem is that many activities have been falsely classified as crimes. Many innocent-seeming activities are illegal. That gives State police power to imprison anyone, by spying on them and then taking a zero-tolerance approach to enforcement.
A pro-State troll says “Don’t worry. If you don’t do anything illegal, you have nothing to worry about.” However, many innocent-seeming activities are crimes. For example, I download old out-of-print computer games (“abandonware”). Technically, that’s illegal, but it doesn’t hurt anyone, and most of those games aren’t available otherwise. If a prosecutor wanted to aggressively pursue me, he could accuse me of “criminal copyright infringement”.
A pro-State troll says “That could never happen. The government would never decide someone is guilty and then fabricate charges.” Consider the case of Charlie Engle. Charlie Engle made a documentary about running across the Sarah Desert. An IRS agent saw the film, and concluded that there was no way he could afford it on his reported income. Therefore, Charlie Engle must be lying on his taxes. After investigating, there was no evidence of tax evasion. However, the investigation did lead to the discovery that Charlie Engle lied on a mortgage loan application, something millions of other people did without being prosecuted. Having already wasted money on an investigation and needing to justify it with a conviction, Charlie Engle was prosecuted for lying on a mortgage application. That’s an example of abuse of State spying and investigative power. An IRS agent decided that Charlie Engle was guilty, he was investigated, and convicted for something that had nothing to do with the original investigation.
The NSA information database could be used to “Charlie Engle” practically anyone. Once a State investigator decides that you’re guilty, he has a lot of power to make a conviction stick, even if it’s something unrelated to the reason he originally suspected you.
The most disturbing part is if someone is investigated based on their political beliefs, and then the State “justice” system is used to harass them. For example, police could decide to crack down on everyone who reads “market anarchist” blogs.
The problem is not collecting information. The problem occurs when someone imprisons me, takes away my property, or denies me a job based on “secret evidence”. They secret evidence does not need to be mentioned in a trial. Secret evidence can be the lead that causes an overzealous investigator to ruin someone’s life.
The NSA information database is not, by itself, evil. It is evil when combined with the State “justice” system. If State police could be trusted to act 100% responsibly and ethically, there were no selective enforcement, and there were no bad laws on the books, then the database would be as wonderful as its advocates say. When many innocent-seeming activities are classified as crimes, State prosecutors have tremendous power to imprison someone that they already decided is guilty. What makes the database truly evil is that the database could be used to identify “subversive persons”, and then the State “justice” system is used to ruin them.