The biggest surprises in politics usually don't come from finding out something that we did not know earlier— they come from finding out something we already suspected to be true, but didn't want to admit. That is the effect that the NSA leaks are producing. After months of hype, outrage, defenses, and debate, the question for many Americans remains, has the public actually found out anything new, or were the efforts made by Edward Snowden and others meaningless? Did anyone doubt that the U.S. surveillance system was overreaching its boundaries to begin with? Although the overreach of the national-security state was an established fact to anyone who cared to pay attention, the specifics of the NSA surveillance scandal are critical and set a whole new precedent, never before encountered in American history.
The problem has been that over decades, constitutional infringements by intelligence agencies have become so common that they are considered an established practice to be questioned only by those unfamiliar with the system. As Justice Learned Hand put it eloquently, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” This establishes the practice of the arbitrary rule of law — using the law when it’s helpful, and either ignoring it or making new laws when it is not. Charles Strohm on Bloomberg noted this when he explained, “Some National Security Agency analysts deliberately ignored restrictions on their authority to spy on Americans multiple times in that past decade, contradicting Obama administration officials’ and lawmakers’ statements that no willful violations occurred.”
This is of course not the first incident of the government deliberately breaking the law. The days of the House Un-American Activities Committee witch trials seem dark to us, and many would argue that what we are witnessing today doesn’t compare. In fact, the tough policies of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover were extraordinary. Having informants on every corner, files on celebrities and politicians, a list of individuals including free-speech advocates who would be detained without trial in case of a national emergency — it's been known for decades that Hoover's FBI did all these things. Yet, Hoover would be positively envious at the equipment and sophistication that today’s surveillance state possesses, not only because technology has improved, but because this improvement has in itself done away with most of those annoying protections that he had to deal with. It has come to the point where NSA officials can accidentally infringe on whatever protections are left, without raising an eyeball.
Those who argue who argue that there is nothing to be surprised about, should note the amount of metadata that the NSA holds. A new NSA data-storage facility in Utah will by some accounts store five zettabytes of data. For comparison, in 2009, the entire internet was estimated to contain one half of one zettabyte. All of this information is gathered through the third party doctrine, which allows the U.S. government to get your phone, internet, email, and banking, information with nothing more than a general, unspecific warrant. This is a new frontier, not previously possible. Be wary.