In the latest abuse-of-government-power scandal, it turns out that the National Security Administration has been collecting data from Verizon on cell phone calls placed by Verizon customers. And we're not talking just a few "persons of interest". The NSA is getting data on all calls placed on the Verizon network. This is data, not "listening" to calls, but nonetheless, if you have a Verizon cell phone, our National Security Administration knows who you called, when, for how long and from where.
This is the sort of situation in which a libertarian take is pretty apropos, and Megan McArdle delivers. One of the big issues here, which I think she correctly identifies, is that there are a lot of potentially "harmless" things that the government can do with the object of "making us safer". After all, it's not as if no one had this phone data before. Verizon had it, and doubtless used it to do research on customer behavior in order to improve their operations and plan changes to the phone plans they offer. So why not let the government have access to the same data in order to make us safer?
The answer, I'd argue, is that all of these seemingly harmless government incursions, from monitoring phone usage to making us take off and x-ray our shoes at the airport, result in more and more acceptance of state intrusion into our lives for less and less real return. The number of lives saved by having everyone take their shoes off at the airport is doubtless so small as to be close to zero. Ditto for tracking phone usage. Sure, I suppose this data is handy to have around when they find themselves tracking a suspected terrorist, but that's what warrants are for. And I think that libertarians are on to something that it's worth keeping the government's nose out of these things just because. We shouldn't have to explain why it's a problem for the government to be getting cell phone usage data. The default should be that they don't get it.
For Democracy to Work
1 hour ago