Welcome to the era of Total Information Awareness and ain't it grand?

The problem isn't the National Security Agency. It's the Patriot Act and what it represents as we watch the modern surveillance state take shape -- in secret.

Part of a slide presentation explaining details of the PRISM program to NSA analysts. Washington Post
So what did you expect?

It's been more than 24 hours since the enterprising Glenn Greenwald revealed that the National Security Agency has been gathering the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. The idea is to match calls against a larger database of numbers used by suspected jihadists. After turning up relevant calling patterns, the NSA could then uncover the identities of the callers. But the Verizon-NSA story was not a one-off.

Peeping PRISM

How concerned are you about the NSA snooping on your Web activities?

The news was followed by another revelation about the NSA on Thursday -- this one disclosing that the agency has been accessing confidential user data held by Silicon Valley firms through secret backdoor access as part of a program, code-named PRISM.

Even the most hard-boiled cynic about the rise of the Big Brother state has to wonder what's going on here.

For the folks who had prophesied that the passage of the Patriot Act set the U.S. on a slippery slope of unchecked government surveillance, these revelations are a predictable vindication of their warnings. But if past is prologue, the crazy thing is how little any of this this will matter to most people.

Sure, the civil liberties types are running around as if their hair is on fire. But the vast majority of the country is likely to tune out before tuning into the next episode of something really important to their lives, like "American Idol." Maybe we trust government more than the opinion polls let on because Americans don't seem to care very much about the building of a vast surveillance state in secret.

The political leadership in Washington says everything's fine and that the government is doing the right thing. The White House set the tone with its defense of "a critical tool" in the fight against terror. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss followed the White House's lead, defending the collection of this vast trove of information, which they said had helped thwart attacks against the homeland.

"I know that people are trying to get to us," Feinstein said. "This is the reason why the FBI now has 10,000 people doing intelligence on counterterrorism. This is the reason for the national counterterrorism center that's been set up in the time we've been active. It's to ferret this out before it happens. It's called protecting America."

Yes, some "people are trying to get us" though that's part of a broader discussion about America's place in the world. I don't like having to trust Feinstein at her word because there's no legal way to find out whether she -- or the rest the government -- is bending the truth or working off flawed information. (WMDs in Iraq, anyone?)

But this is just after-the-fact grousing by yours truly. We traded away a lot in return for the promise of more security when Congress passed the Patriot Act into law in 2001 (and then extended it in 2011.) All that's left to prevent an uber-powerful super-spy agency from going rogue is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets behind closed doors and whose proceedings are usually shrouded in secrecy.

Coming down with buyer's remorse yet? You ought to be.

 

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