The government has long argued that this information isn't private or personal. It is, they say, the equivalent of looking at the envelope of a letter: what's written on the outside is simple, functional information that's essentially already public.
That argument is incredibly lame for several reasons. For one thing, this isn’t a case of a letter falling out of a postal carrier’s bag; this is tens of millions of letters being culled and sifted every day, with the data recorded, stored, and analyzed.
You may be able to read the return address on the envelope, but you wouldn’t know my location when I mailed it, and you wouldn’t know the computer or pen I used to write it. Here, the government can glean all of those things.
The location data alone is particularly sensitive. A US Appeals Court justice wrote the following:
"A person who knows all of another travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts."
So the question becomes, why does the NSA feel the need to know whether we are all regular church goers or unfaithful husbands? Why, in order to allegedly thwart terrorists before they strike, does it need to gather up data about all of us?
Now there are good reasons for gathering data about who a terror suspect calls. If subject A regularly calls suspect B and C, and those two people each call four to six others apiece, then you have a network of 10 to 15 people who may or may not be involved in some kind of evil conspiracy. Hopefully you’re able to discard people who are totally unrelated to any kind of plot (like, say, the pizza joint that delivers them food) and concentrate on potential bad guys.
The problem with this kind of all-encompassing data gathering is that we’re all suspects until we’re discarded by the NSA. And not just for terror. Any other possible criminal conspiracies we might be involved in can also be detected in the same way. That is why more than 99 percent of cases where investigators have used the Patriot Act to obtain information have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.
Of course, to a computer, a terrorist hatching plans via phone probably doesn’t look all that different from a PTA mom running a calling tree to arrange afterschool pickups. That’s the problem with data mining; false positives can have deadly consequences.