The National Security Agency's program of scooping up raw data on nearly every phone call placed in the United States should freak us all out – not so much because of what the agency is doing, but because it has the technological capability to do it.
So far, there is no evidence that the government is zeroing in on any phone calls besides those linked to terrorism suspects. Personally, I’m glad our intelligence agencies have that wormhole into the dark redoubts of fanatics who want to kill Americans. As for the vast ocean of telephone calls made by the rest of us, I think we can be pretty certain that no one has the inclination or time to sift through the millions of conversations to find that clandestine call to your secret lover, let alone the last call to grandma or the pizza delivery guy.
Those who generally trust the government (that has to be a small minority in this great land of anti-government paranoia) will rest assured that the excesses will be few, that checks and balances are in place, and that government agents will generally respect the Constitution. But the less trusting will have no problem imagining a government that ignores laws, bypasses judicial restraints and is driven by ominous motives.
In other parts of the globe, it is not an act of imagination, it is a recognition of reality. Consider China, a regime that has no restraints. If not now then soon, the Chinese government will have surveillance capabilities equal to those of the United States. That is a truly Orwellian prospect.
That national governments are gaining the technological capability to spy on every phone call, text, email and tweet of every person in a country, if not the world, is something new and frightening. Multinational corporations will have nearly the same capacity as well, and major criminal organizations will not be far behind.
Benjamin Franklin said those who trade away a little liberty for safety soon find they have neither. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the trade of liberty for safety has been a continuous transaction. The ominous truth, though, is that technology is radically shifting the terms of the transaction, whether we like it or not.