RANT MODE ENGAGED...
I was all fired up to write a post about the whole NSA leak and the Obama administration's reaction to it, and then I read about the President of Bolivia's plane being forced to land in Austria on the off-chance that Edward Snowden was on it (really, this just happened), and now I don't know what to think. It seems almost comical, but it may really represent a much more sinister escalation of said reaction.
The behind-the-scenes narrative of Obama's re-election was all about the power of Big Data and better code. The systems built for the campaign managed to target potential voters and change their behaviour at a scale and with a level of precision that had been done before only in private industry. The Romney campaign's equivalent toolkit failed miserably, and they lost. (It's possible they might have lost anyway, but it certainly didn't help that their code sucked.)
Knowing that your victory, and future Democratic victories, hinged on being able to build better predictive models of individuals' behaviour and influence those individuals directly, and finding out the scale of the NSA's systems dedicated at least to the first half of the equation - would you turn it off or use it? And if you were going to use it, what would be the most effective way to do so?
China's internal censorship is probably the best answer to the second question. Research undertaken by MIT hints that its goal is not to suppress all criticism of the government, which would be practically impossible without a massive backlash. Instead, it lets some content through as a safety valve, but mainly acts to prevent the formation of spontaneously or formally organized groups, simplifying society's structure to two types of entity, the individual, and the State. (This currently relies on a lot of manual intervention and crude keyword matching, which has ended up in an intellectual arms race between the censored and the censors.)
This approach, unmodified, would probably never work in the US. The country is a crazily complex mosaic of religious and sociopolitical groups, held together by an admirable Constitution and an overwhelming sense of exceptionalism. But with a near-realtime model of your interactions, and some level of media control - as little as a targeted email from your local representative, say, mentioning how seriously they're taking an issue you were only just thinking of getting involved with - it could be possible to achieve the same effect. It could be spun as something benevolent. They could say they were using publicly available data from social networks to be more responsive to the needs of constituents. The data could even be anonymised to short-circuit privacy concerns, with voters being targetted by segment. But the net effect would be the same as in China. Independent political voices would be neutralised.
It's possible that programs like this don't exist, though I doubt it. I wouldn't give up that advantage, especially if I could come up with legal arguments to justify them. It's also possible that the systems behind it are totally separate to the NSA's information collection and analysis apparatus. But here's the thing. The reaction to the Snowden leaks has been so extreme, and so unanimous, that it's starting to look like all levels of the US government have something to fear from broader knowledge of the NSA's capabilities and programmes. It's telling that the fact that James Clapper lied to the Senate about said programmes doesn't even register, and there has been practically no dissent. My guess is that there has been at least some blurring of the lines, and that the administration is scared of the reaction if that comes out.
We're entering an age where elections will go not to politicians who tell you what they think you want to hear, but to those who know what you want to hear to a 95%+ level of confidence. And up until now we were getting there without anyone being (obviously) evil. But now that there's some light being shone on how it works, appearing a little bit evil may be something that the US government is more comfortable with - at least until they secure the leaks and the whole thing blows over. All I know is, if I were Ed Snowden, I'd keep watching the skies.