With the latest Obama scandal it seems pretty clear that the NSA is tracking what each of us do online, who we call and from where. The two defenses of such an incredible breach of privacy without any probable cause are:
1. It's perfectly legal
2. The NSA is just sifting through metadata, looking for patterns, they don't really care about you. Innocent Americans have nothing to fear.
And yes, it is all technically legal because of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The key text of this section reads:
The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.
So I guess somehow all of America is now "under investigation"? I really don't think it was obvious when this section was written that the government would get carte blanche to sift through EVERY phone and electronic record looking for Al-Qaeda. Clearly the interpretation of Obama's legal team is a bit of a stretch. Even the guy who wrote the Patriot Act thinks so, calling the actions of the NSA "un-American". At best from a legal standpoint, we are in a grey zone.
I also think it's a bit of a cop out to say something is okay because it's legal. Slavery was legal here. So were Jim Crow laws. Hitler took power through legal parliamentary procedures and passed his Nuremburg laws the same way (my apologies to Godwin). When 2000 page bills are passed without people reading them, of course the government can find some subsection of some law to say they are allowed to do what they are doing.
Also laws don't mean much when there isn't oversight to make sure they aren't abused. Oh there is oversight of the Patriot Act? By whom? It's always other members of government. The problem with that is, as long as they are part of the same broader organization, they are never truly independent. There is always some way to pressure them to rule the way you want. So the legal justification really only goes so far. I think what is more important would be whether a reasonable person would think it is right or wrong and I'm pretty sure that the government acting like Big Brother would not be viewed as right by reasonable Americans.
On my other point, I actually do have faith that the NSA doesn't care about the pictures I put up on Facebook or the video I put up of my 13 month old dancing to rock music. They are data mining and looking for patterns, patterns that can help them identify and breakup terrorist cells. The problem is how can you say this will always be the case? What if one day, one legalese line to the effect of "for the sake of efficiency, any data harbored by one government agency shall be shared with the other government agencies so that they can better achieve their mandates" is inserted into some 2000 page bill that nobody reads and subsequently passes? Just as the original Section 215 didn't say explicitly that the NSA will be snooping into your life whether you are under investigation or not, the next legal change won't say that the IRS or whomever will have access to the same data. And I'm sure when THAT story breaks we will hear the excuse that it's all legal as well.
Government abuses power, that is what it does. We need to make sure we it them as little power as possible.