The big question, as I see it, is whether we in the US should allow wholesale collection of data by the US government. There are many issues to consider. Is the practice unconstitutional under the fourth amendment? (Probably, but open to interpretation. Here's a reminder of the fourth amendment.)
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Does the practice give the government the machinery to be totalitarian if it chooses to go that direction? (I'd bet money on that.) Does the practice help the government foil terrorist plots? (The director of the NSA says yes, about 50 of them.)
Oh drat--good arguments on both sides. How the hell can I decide whether constitutional rights protecting against warrantless searches are more important than stopping 9/11-like events?
You know, I really don't want more events like 9/11. I want potential terrorists to know that there's a high likelihood they'll be discovered if they try to plot something. If the government collects mountains of data to do that, it's a bit scary. But guess what? My grocery store chain already collects data on me (because I want those discounts, dammit!!!) and so does Google, which keeps offering me stuff I've already bought. The government isn't doing squat with my data that I can tell, probably because I don't trip any alarms with too many visits to jihadi sites coupled with airline tickets to Pakistan.
I am worried that I'm choosing comfort over principle. But maybe I'm choosing survival for thousands of my countrymen, which isn't the same as comfort. Maybe I'm letting my government fulfill its mission to protect the security of the country, another highly important constitutional duty.
Frankly, I suspect I can't reason my way through this issue. I might just be gathering data and arguments that support the conclusion I already have. That's a problem many people will have with this issue.
NSA... No, NASA
Extras. Overview of massive data collection.
My failed thought experiment: Massive data collection is like watching a school of fish. You don't really see the individuals and you don't know anything about an individual. However, you can pinpoint the one that breaks the pattern. But the analogy breaks down when it comes to telephone usage patterns and internet usage patterns because there must be millions of different patterns.So the government can't be looking for everything that deviates from "the pattern" because there are so many deviations. Probably, they filter for specific behaviors. It's only when there is suspicious behavior that the government wants to determine the individual involved. That might pass a fourth amendment test--maybe.
So the government doesn't have a dossier on each person, or even close to that. But do they still have too much information? Yes, if you don't want the government to have the ability to track you. But it's necessary if you want the government to have the ability to track potential terrorists. Not an easy choice.