If you could introduce a secure system to prevent crime by finding criminals before they even commit the crimes, would that not be great. A system to find all the dangerous terrorists before they harm anybody? And if you yourself are neither criminal nor terrorist, what do you have to fear from such a system, even if it means losing privacy? The governments reads all our emails and knows our every phone call and move and can thus protect us from the bad boys.
The problem with this is: what constitutes a crime is a matter of definition. The definition can be changed by the government.
A government may define as a crime any of the following: belonging to the opposition, being a Jew, being black, being an intellectual, being poor, being democratic, being Muslim, being atheist, being homosexual, whatever. For each of these “crimes” there are contemporary or historic examples.
Had the Nazis been in possession of a system like Prism, not a single Jew would have survived.
A perfect system of finding criminals is a perfect system of finding people belonging to any arbitrarily defined group. It depends on the definition. What is a crime or who is a terrorist is not something fixed beforehand, it is something defined by those in power. Only a civil, democratic society can ensure that the concept of crime is not misused, but the availability of a total security system destroys the civil society.
What has been built in the USA is an infrastructure for an oppressive surveillance state. If somebody seizes power, he can use this system to suppress opposition. Therefore, the existence of this system in the USA makes it more likely that the USA will actually keel over into a dictatorship. Think of a political or economic crisis where a government declares a state of emergency and then somebody seizes power. While before, a system of checks and balances made it relatively unlikely that such a coup would succeed, a system enabling somebody seizing power to quickly identify and find all people who could oppose him would make it extremely difficult to return back to a state of democracy.
In order to keep freedom, civil rights and privacy rights must therefore be kept. A system like Prism is a danger to freedom, lawfulness and democracy. This system must therefore be abolished, even if that means reducing security. Otherwise it poses the risk of loosing freedom. In a dictatorship, however, there is no security again. Anybody can find himself at any time in a Gulag camp or a torture chamber. So if you want perfect security, you will first lose freedom and then security on top.
The creation of this system is being justified with the threat of terrorism. But how large is this threat actually? According to numbers I have found on the internet, In 2010, 15 US civilians died from terrorist attacks, in 2011, 17. If you search the web for the statistics on the leading causes of death in the US, more than half a million people a year die from hart disease. So why is so incredibly much money spent on fighting such a totally marginal risk like terrorism and why are civil rights compromised and democracy endangered for this purpose? The risk of terrorism is relatively small. Companies producing tobacco, soft drinks and junk food, causing US citizens to suffer from obesity, diabetes, cancer and hart disease, cause more deaths by several orders of magnitude. They are actually several thousand times as dangerous as Al Qaida. Where is the war on them. US citizens should be very cool about the risk of terrorism, but the should be extremely concerned about Prism and other assaults on basic civil rights.
I don’t know if the point of no return for civil rights and democracy in the US has already been passed. Maybe it has been passed already in 2001 with the Patriot Act. But US citizens should try everything they can to force the government to abandon Prism. Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Democracy is a meta-stable system that can flip into tyranny. An organization like NSA and a system like Prism will make that flip more likely. US citizens must take action now, if they still can.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R70579,_Carl_von_Ossietzky_im_KZ.jpg.
The picture shows Carl von Osietzky in the concentration camp Esterwegen. Ossietzky, a German pacifist and Journalist, was arrested and tortured by the Nazis for exposing the clandestine rearmament of Germany. In 1935, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1983, still in prison.)