It has been revealed that the FBI and NSA are using the Patriot Act to monitor pretty much all telephone calls and media files drifting through 9 major Internet companies including Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Obama says that those things are in the context of the fight against terrorism. Some key officials responsible for these formerly secret programs have criticized the... leak.
I was sort of pleasantly surprised by the New York Times editorial
Some partisans who have criticized Bush for certain things suddenly get unbelievably silent when the same things are being done by Obama but the New York Times doesn't seem to belong to this hypocritical club. I know that many fellow rightwingers really despise the Grey Lady but for me, it still represents the kind of healthy and manageable (nearly) centrist America that I first met in the late 1990s. Well, mostly.
Needless to say, some people find it creepy and unacceptable whenever their personal data are accessible to some third parties – even if the third parties are just Silicon Americans (I mean computers and similar creatures who use transistors to think). Well, I personally don't share these emotions but I agree that even if the reason for concern is purely psychological, those who find it creepy have the right to use the mechanisms of democracy to promote their opinion that these things shouldn't be happening.
I have said that a similar monitoring, as long as it is guaranteed that it's illegal to abuse it, doesn't scare me. Imagine that you have some private data or habits on the Internet or photographs etc. that you don't want to publish. Why do you really want to avoid it? Are you scared when an employee – usually one in a distant city, one whom you're not meeting – knows some intimate details about you but he or she is acting exactly in the same way as if he or she knew nothing?
My pragmatic viewpoint is that the only rational reason to be concerned is the possibility that someone will blackmail you or humiliate you or create other kinds of disadvantages for you by using the data that should have remained confidential. If we may be sufficiently confident that such things won't happen, e.g. because they're illegal and someone who would abuse the data would be sufficiently punished to discourage others, we shouldn't be worried about the surveillance too much.
Needless to say, this pragmatic attitude of mine partly boils down to the fact that in my life, I have experienced a sufficient numbers of problems that were caused by real people and people who were geometrically or socially close to me so that I didn't find it helpful or necessary to invent fictitious problems, conspiracy theories, or dragons or to worry about some distant people I have never interacted with.
There is always some risk that something unpleasant will happen to you but these programs also have a virtue that may be much more important: they may actually help to catch many or almost all terrorists and other people who are planning to hurt you or other decent people. And that may be a decisive factor. I am not primarily talking about two or three minor attacks that may be thwarted thanks to similar programs. I am primarily talking about the possible big attacks that may be stopped.
The question whether the government should be trying to protect or otherwise help its citizens in ways that are not transparent at all is very subtle. Again, there are arguments on both sides. The virtue of the transparency is that policies that are found truly unacceptable by most citizens may be identified and stopped – in other words, the feedbacks work and allow the people to improve the system; the vice of the transparency is that it helps the villains to adapt or change their behavior – in other words, there is again a feedback but in these cases, feedbacks are negative things.
Because of the latter reason, I tend to understand the worries of those whose task is to protect the safety of the U.S. citizens. The leak just makes their work harder. The fact may have been leaked simply because someone was honestly stunned by the arguably creepy policy. I can't answer the question whether these people had the right to leak it; I am no lawyer. And the question whether they had the moral right is a complicated one. At any rate, it's understandable that some people sometimes leak such things because they think it's the right thing to do. When policies become sufficiently creepy, you may bet that in a sufficiently large collective of employees that works on them, there will be someone who will leak what is going on. This may be bad for a particular program but it is good, too. It is good because in the long run and when it comes to really big conspiracy theories, you may just dismiss these conspiracy theories.
For example, 9/11 almost certainly couldn't have been an inside job because you would need too many people to cooperate and none of them has leaked it which makes the conspiracy theory unlikely. We don't even have to rely on the belief that no one in the U.S. establishment could have possibly had a sufficient incentive to organize such a monstrous event.
This monitoring is clearly a less ambitious theory than what the truthers believe and it turns out that it is true. The leak will have some consequences and many people may fight to completely abolish similar programs. But I think that such programs are ultimately helpful as well because they help to make the protection of the U.S. citizens more efficient or cheaper or both.
The citizens may think whatever they want but I do think that it would be rational for them to accept a certain layer of surveillance they don't understand as long as there seems to be sufficient evidence that the data obtained in this way aren't being used to harass innocent citizens by the methods mentioned above; and that they're not used selectively against certain groups of citizens in the case that these groups aren't quite innocent but they're doing something that is sufficiently widespread and that would almost certainly remain unknown to the external world if the surveillance didn't exist. (The latter concern – double standards – is a reason why the IRS' harassment of the Tea Party charities may be less creepy but it is more self-evidently immoral.)
It's hard to say whether the mechanisms that already exist – or mechanisms that may be adopted – guarantee that the negative impact of similar policies is minimized and whether there exists a conceptual reason (probably a mechanism) to think that the negative impact will be minimized. People should think about this general framework – how to make sure that the government agencies are working for their interests (because a government that isn't controlled by the people ultimately doesn't have any reason to behave in ways that are optimal for the electorate!) – but I think it's rational for them to leave certain technicalities to the professionals and allow them to maintain a certain opacity because this opacity may work in their interests and for the interests of justice in general.