That the government data mines isn’t news.

That the government has the ability to use secret judicial processes to obtain emails and phone records isn’t news.

The controversy over the latest revelations is a controversy about things which have been known — at least in part — for years and in some instances for decades.  It started, in various forms, before George W. Bush.

Ace uses Chesterton’s parable of the fence to suggest that we need to know more about how these systems operate and why before reaching a conclusion whether to tear them down:

But what if the program were such — and when I say “what if,” understand I have no idea if it works this way; I am simply speculating about one possible configuration — that automated non-human algorithms searched for certain keywords and, generally, signs of either a foreign language or English being written by a non-native speaker.  And what if the traffic so identified was kicked up to a higher level of automated scrutiny– still no humans reading — and scanned for additional worrisome signs.

And then, only after the billions of messages had been screened down to Worrisome Few, say a few thousand in a month, would humans then check the flagged passages, and then, if they thought those passages were alarming, seek a judge’s warrant to read the full text, and not just the flagged sentences and phrases.

Now, I think that such a system would be far less worrisome, although it would still be creepy, and of course still prone to great and serious abuse.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that if we abandon our advantage in the realm of computer processing power (and the incredible advantage we have in that most internet traffic, world-wide, circulates through the US), I think we’re going to be down to our human capabilities which, once again, I think are virtually non-existent with regard to Al Qaeda.  I think we’ll be down to the felt.

Perhaps there will be more public acknowledgement, and some additional safeguards, precisely because data mining was built for a reason.

I also don’t think you can separate the current reaction from the IRS scandal, which showed how supposedly neutral bureaucrats can politicize data and use the control over and demand for data as a weapon.

Explanations and justifications which might have worked in the past no longer are enough, thanks to the IRS.