If I remember correctly, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a succession of laws that has made it far easier for law enforcement and security officials to spy on online and other communications with or without warrants.
We already have widespread, massive abuse of National Security Letters (NSLs) – which allow the FBI, without a court order, to obtain telecommunication, financial and credit records deemed “relevant” to a government investigation. The FBI issues about 50,000 a year and an internal watchdog has repeatedly found the flagrant misuse of this power.
Here's a few clips from an excellent article in PC World on this legislation and the reaction of privacy advocates:
Tracking the private daily behavior of everyone in order to help catch a small number of child criminals is itself the noxious practice of police states. Said an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "The data retention mandate in this bill would treat every Internet user like a criminal and threaten the online privacy and free speech rights of every American." Even more troubling is what the government would need to do in order to access this trove of private information: ask for it.
Remember, the Internet is the communication tool of choice now for political activism and organizing. Doesn't the fact that we already know how the FBI and even local law enforcement has abused the Patriot Act by monitoring peaceful protest groups and environmentalists and in some cases attempted to prevent protest activities (particularly against the war) provide us with one of the clear motives behind our ever expanding surveillance state?
This increasingly intrusive surveillance state threatens the very concept of privacy, particularly privacy as a necessary requisite for liberty, which I believe it is. With privacy comes control, with control comes at least a semblance of power. The Internet is where so much of the future of political dialogue, activism, and communication will occur...I think it would be a gross mistake to allow open access to the government...we've seen how the FBI has used such monitoring capabilities when it comes to the telephone or wireless computers.
I question the very premise that the government benefits from, or certainly that we need, such an all encompassing surveillance state. Remember, our military, our CIA, our spying agencies (such as NSA) are every bit corporate as they are governmental: in some cases more so. So complete is the merger that it's the same people who switch seamlessly back and forth between governmental agencies and their private "partners". This means we have not only a vast Secret Government, but one that operates with virtually no democratic accountability and is driven not by National Security concerns but by its own always-expanding private profits and need for greater control.
All this begs the question: who is really benefiting from this expanding surveillance state and why?
For those insisting that the Government must have the technological ability to eavesdrop on any and all communications in order to stop Terrorists and criminals, what are you going to do about in-person communications? By this logic, the Government should install eavesdropping devices in all private homes and public spaces, provided they promise only to listen in when the law allows them to do so (I believe there was a book written about that once). For those insisting that the Government must have the physical ability to spy on all communications, what objections could one have to such a proposal? We've developed this child-like belief that all Bad Things can be prevented -- we can be Kept Safe from all dangers -- provided we just vest enough power in the Government to protect us all. What we lose from that mentality, however, is quite vast yet rarely counted. A central value of the Internet was that it was supposed to enable the flow of information free from the surveillance and control of governmental and other authorities.