But with each technological breakthrough comes a break-in to realms previously thought private. “It’s really valuable for law enforcement, but we have to update the wiretap laws,” Landau said.Back in the day, NSA employed more Russian linguists than anyone. That costs a ton of money - salary and benefits, plus office space is swankly Tempest-resistant buildings ain't cheap. A monster data center in Utah, filled with racks of servers costing $1500 each, well that's a lot cheaper. And the servers hum 24/7, tracing the web of connections. Unsleeping.
It was exactly these concerns that motivated the mathematician William Binney, a former N.S.A. official who spoke to me for the Drake story, to retire rather than keep working for an agency he suspected had begun to violate Americans’ fundamental privacy rights. After 9/11, Binney told me, as I reported in the piece, General Michael Hayden, who was then director of the N.S.A., “reassured everyone that the N.S.A. didn’t put out dragnets, and that was true. It had no need—it was getting every fish in the sea.”
Binney, who considered himself a conservative, feared that the N.S.A.’s data-mining program was so extensive that it could help “create an Orwellian state.”
As he told me at the time, wiretap surveillance requires trained human operators, but data mining is an automated process, which means that the entire country can be watched. Conceivably, the government could “monitor the Tea Party, or reporters, whatever group or organization you want to target,” he said.
It's an electronic Stasi, watching and monitoring everything for the sign of anything possibly suspicious or undesirable to the Organs Of The State. And the data is there if someone wants to go back and look later, maybe years later. If, say, a Director of National Intelligence is acting too independently and needs to be reigned back in - hey, where was he at night, according to the GPS data from his cell phone? Maybe he has a mistress or something.
If the government were less secretive, it might be different. If we weren't awash with scandals where the government has been abusing its power, it might be different. It's not, and it's not. Professor Jacobsen sums it up in a sentence:
You can’t separate the data mining, the culture of intimidation, and criminalization of daily life.
Listening in on phone calls is for suckers. They don't need to.