According to a report from today's New York Times, the National Security Agency is collecting and monitoring virtually all text-based electronic communication into and out of the United States. This means every e-mail and text message is intercepted, copied, systematically searched, and retained by the government--without a warrant. It is precisely this type of government intrusion that the 4th Amendment is designed to protect us from.
With each of these shocking disclosures comes the reasoning for why our rights are being violated wholesale. But for all the billions of dollars, for the massive data storage centers, for the chilling effect on our freedom of expression and association, the government can only muster a scary hypothetical to justify its actions.
An example from today's New York Times:
"Stewart Baker, a former general counsel for the N.S.A., said that such surveillance could be valuable in identifying previously unknown terrorists or spies inside the United States who unwittingly reveal themselves to the agency by discussing a foreign-intelligence “indicator.” He cited a situation in which officials learn that Al Qaeda was planning to use a particular phone number on the day of an attack.
“If someone is sending that number out, chances are they are on the inside of the plot, and I want to find the people who are on the inside of the plot,” he said."
More likely, however, is what the Guardian reported last week about a family in New York visited and questioned by law enforcement over on-line searches for pressure cookers and backpacks. Ultimately, knowing that all our communications are being searched causes us to alter our behavior. Perhaps we'll think twice about sending that report from Al Jazeera or praising Bradley Manning or web searching pressure cookers, there's no way to know what might make us a suspect in the eyes of our government.