Privacy and Free Speech
First the violation of privacy, second the potential end to anonymity on the web. The US government has been caught violating its own citizens privacy as well as foreigners, without permission of any kind. No warrants just suspicion. The NSA was given the go-ahead by President Bush, and they wiretapped, phonetapped, monitored in any way, the actions of people they suspected were linked to terrorism. The NYT reports one arrest from such activities. Was one arrest worth un unknown amount (over 1000) intrusions? Maybe it was.
The pentagon was caught red handed with all sorts of data they didn't need. Not data on people who were suspects, common citizens like you or me. Though they promise to delete it (whether they are credible is another subject) the fact that they can collect it so easily is disturbing.
Second, due to problems with phishing, spoofing and outright terrorism on the net, computer makers are putting unique identifiers into computers. Websites such as banks would be able to verify customers based on their computer alone. So would web trackers, the government, and anyone else. What happens when someone figures out how to spoof these? Or steals your computer?
The european parliament has mandated something similar. Telecos must now track all of their customers visits to anywhere. Not what was transferred, but where they were, when and for how long. This is tantamount to recording data, since it is fairly easy to match these things to a specific activity. Practically this doesn't matter for a few reasons: the European parliament is toothless. No one MUST obey them. This seems to be rediculously impractical, with all the data that would have to be recorded, stored, backedup etc. Not to mention the costs this would impost on the telcos (which would almost wholly be passed to consumers). But theoretically this is scary.
Many argue that privacy and free speech are two disconnected concepts. They are very much linked. Free speech can exist without privacy, but it probably won't. In order for free speech to exist without privacy, many individuals must feel that there won't be major reprecussions for expressing their opinion. Some people are willing to sacrifice their reputations, comfort, safety and more for free speech, but not many. Thus for free speech to exist, these dangers must be minimized. Privacy and anonymity minimize the dangers very well.
Further strengthening the tie between privacy and free speech, I believe privacy cannot exist without free speech. Without the ability to point to violations of privacy, there will be more violations of privacy. It seems common sense. For those in power, the rational thing to do is crack down on dissidents if they can and want to stay in power (and doing so won't get them voted out or overthrown).
In places accustomed to democracy, such as North America and Western Europe, this will probably never be as bad as Orwell predicted in 1984. We are used to being treated properly and we can unseat leaders who don't respect our rights. As long as we know about violations (but if privacy disappears for citizens, but not for the government we may not hear about violations), leaders can be voted out. Heck, just today the patriot act extensions were defeated in the senate.
The thing that worries me is what this trend and technology will do to countries without our freedoms. There are a lot more ways to express ourselves now, but it is a lot easier to find and punish those who do. Look at China. They have successfully (for the most part) kept one billion people without free speech and without letting them complain about it. There are a few exceptions, like Tiennamen Square, but compared to the whole, they are quite small. Would you rather be Stalin in 2005 or 1945? How about in 2010 when the internet is locked down with our names on everything we do, the government knowing everywhere we visit, call et cetera.
This is all done in the name of fighting terrorism. Our enemies (by that I mean those who overtly wish us harm) are harder to catch now than ever before. They masquerade as friends and can cause devastation. So I somewhat understand the problem. But I'm not sure this will work. Terrorists move more obtuse ways of communicating (better encryption, using comprimised computers to preserve anonymity, and others). This is making it harder to monitor and catch them. But what about citizens? We send plaintext four letter passwords to our bank accounts across the internet. Most do not encrypt their email or keep even a semblance of electronic security. So who is the government really getting the ability to spy on? Terrorists or us?
So I think terrorists are the white rabbit. If you do nearly anything in the name of safety is supported (see the the patriot act). “ They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Thats Benjamin Franklin. He did have some cooky ideas, but as far as I can tell he is right on the money here.
Edit: I originally misattributed this quote to Jefferson until a reader comment pointed my mistake to me. Thanks!