Judge Posner Nails It
Lefties imagine Big Brother sifting through their trash cans, sorting through the porn files on their computers, listening in on their phone calls and tracking them on their late-night runs to 7-11 to feed their munchie cravings, so they tend to personalize NSA surveilance. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Posner points out:
The collection, mainly through electronic means, of vast amounts of personal data is said to invade privacy. But machine collection and processing of data cannot, as such, invade privacy. Because of their volume, the data are first sifted by computers, which search for names, addresses, phone numbers, etc., that may have intelligence value. This initial sifting, far from invading privacy (a computer is not a sentient being), keeps most private data from being read by any intelligence officer.
It's been half a week since NYT (seditiously) broke the NSA story. No one has yet come forward with a sympathetic victim of this surveillance -- and you know how the media love to put a face on the story.
The data that make the cut are those that contain clues to possible threats to national security. The only valid ground for forbidding human inspection of such data is fear that they might be used to blackmail or otherwise intimidate the administration's political enemies. That danger is more remote than at any previous period of U.S. history. Because of increased political partisanship, advances in communications technology and more numerous and competitive media, American government has become a sieve. No secrets concerning matters that would interest the public can be kept for long. And the public would be far more interested to learn that public officials were using private information about American citizens for base political ends than to learn that we have been rough with terrorist suspects -- a matter that was quickly exposed despite efforts at concealment.
There is no sympathetic victim. There is no abuse of good citizens. There's risk, always, that a president could abuse this authority -- but that's one reason why they only are entitled to serve at the people's discretion for four years at a time.