Yesterday’s posting on unconsented cell phone surveillance reminded me of an excellent column that Peter Shane wrote a while back in Jurist where he pointed out that any technical legality of the NSA surveillance program is besides the point. Shane asked, what if the Post Office created a database with the addresses contained on every piece of mail it handles. Even if, hypothetically, such a program were legal:
An America in which ordinary citizens have their mail “surveilled” would be a different America from the country in which virtually all of us think we live. Our freedom would be lost not because a law was broken, but because of the breakdown in respect for the norms of liberty and government self-restraint.
I think much the same could be said of the ends-justifies-the-means thinking of the Northeastern University researchers who got a European cell phone provider to give them individualized location information on 100,000 unknowing customers. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.