There's an interesting article over on the Columbia Missourian website regarding an ongoing court battle between MO, the federal Justice Department, and local phone companies over the release of private records of Missourians to the NSA by the phone companies. The pretext for the alleged privacy violations is, of course, national security, the "war on terror," and a process known as "data mining."
The NSA, President Bush, and the other intel agencies argue that attaining this private communications information is crucial to preventing another terrorist attack, and that the process of "data mining" has worked to catch terrorists and prevent such an attack by finding terrorist cells based on their communication patterns. They further assert that such "wiretapping" actions are justified under the Patriot Act and the broad authority granted the president as commander-in-chief to prosecute the ongoing "war on terror" in whatever manor he finds most suitable.
The issue here is efficacy. If the procedure of "data mining" works, and the associated right to privacy being surrendered is made up for with real added security and effectiveness against terrorists, and the information being gathered is being used solely for that purpose, then it's reasonable to surrender some privacy right in exchange for that security. Commissioner Steve Gaw sums it up nicely:
"We have tried to be sensitive on not delving into issues that could cause a security issue," Gaw said. "At the same time, if we give up rights and freedom in order to be secure, what have we gained? And what have we lost?"
Our friends over that the Cato Institute have published an interesting paper calling into question the very efficacy of "data mining," or the systematic combing through of billions of bits of information for communications patterns likely to be attributable to terrorist activities. They essentially argue that the process is flawed, largely ineffective, and that the benefits it conveys are not worth the tradeoff in security gains. I am no expert on anything, much less computer science or national security, but I do know that I'm not a terrorist, nor is there any reason for the gov't to assume that I am. Until they have probable cause to believe otherwise, my phone records should remain nobody's business but my own. If my telephone company has circumvented that right to privacy I deserve to know, and will most assuredly switch to another provider more respectful of my civil liberties.