@thebackhand --Re: Legality. But!
'[Govts] ...have been monitoring international traffic since the 1940's...'
Very true, but in the old days pre digital AXE telephone exchanges, we had Strowger/SXS (step-by-step) and cross-point/crossbar exchanges which required considerably more effort and manpower by government to monitor. (You'll have probably seen old B/W cops and robbers movies where the crooks are trying to get away and some telephone exchange techie with the police looking on is hastily tracing their phone call along the sequential stepping of Strowger switches to get their phone number before they rang off—in those days the only 'call log' was the charging meter impulse.)
What's happened with the introduction of AXE and similar computerized exchanges is nothing short of an almighty huge paradigm shift—no exaggeration whatsoever. An AXE exchange enables authorized persons to sit at a remote location—even in another country—and monitor/trace calls at will, not to mention to do so with considerable ease; furthermore, blanket surveillance monitoring is essentially automatic—that's until the 'machinery' signals 'juicy bits have arrived'. This computerized technology empowers The State's ability for general surveillance more than it ever possibly dreamt of 50 years ago.
Moreover, it's not just the automatic logging/recording of AXE-type computerized switching equipment that's important, behind it are all the trappings of professional data management infrastructures. Extend this to the internet and the mega collection centers run by the likes of GCHQ, NSA, ASIO etc. and we've the huge extent of state surveillance as it is today.
Just by computerizing the exchanges alone, The State has found itself with a very considerable advantage over its citizens, it now knows more about us than ever before, and more knowledge inevitably means more power and control over our lives by government. Couple this with the new laws covering surveillance and security and that telcos are forced to install government surveillance access points—usually at the telco's expense, then there's no doubt that what we've witnessed over the past 50 years is a huge shift of power to The State.
Essentially, technology has enabled The State to do whatever it damn well wants in the security and privacy areas of citizens' lives, and it damn well has—without our permission. Moreover, it's done so through omission, obfuscation, FUD and misinformation. Failure of governments to explain clearly and succinctly to all citizens that the telephone is no longer private is aided and abetted by the fact the average punter has difficulties in understanding the huge significance / ramifications of changing from electromechanical switching to computer based systems (Strowger to AXE etc.) is also part of the problem. Effectively, it has meant that there's been a huge and manifold increase in the ease by which governments can monitor citizens, and they've gotten away with it at ease.
Governments have introduced this hugely enabling and powerful monitoring technology without any public debate. Here's some instances: when did you hear ANY government say to its citizens—through say big type in the front of phone books, TV ads, advertising campaigns etc.:
(a) that government has cheap and easy means to conduct surveillance on you and all citizens, it does so now and it has every intention of continuing to so do, and;
(b) the government will carry out surveillance on you and other citizens whenever it wants to so do, either by listening to or monitoring your conversations and activities or by any other means at its disposal such as the collection of your metadata, whether you protest about it or not, and;
(c) it will do so in utmost secrecy without your knowledge and without having to tell you—and if you find out by accident that you're under surveillance and tell others of the fact, then you'll be charged with subversion and or sedition even if you've never committed any criminal act nor intend to do so—just by telling others you're under surveillance (or you tell of others who are), then you've committed a criminal act, and;
(d) that the government will conduct blanket monitoring/surveillance across the state at will—even if you're not a suspect or have never been a suspect in any illegal or nefarious activities, you will, nevertheless, likely be under surveillance, your activities will be recorded at will by the government—and if it doesn't like what you are doing or even what you are thinking then its general monitoring will metamorphose into outright heavy-duty surveillance of your person as well as your friends, relatives and contacts—just on that information alone, and;
(e) that the private information that the government collects about you through its surveillance of you may and probably will be shared with governments of other countries—governments that you've never voted for, and;
(f) that governments have never issued in advance of commencing general blanket surveillance any publicity to warn you and all fellow citizens of the very real dangers posed by state surveillance, nor have they proffered sensible advice such as how not to draw attention to yourself and how NOT to incriminate yourself, your family, friends or contacts etc. by saying silly things over the telephone or internet or discussing, implying and or even mentioning anything that's controversial or that may be misconstrued as controversial, criminal or subversive—even in jest? After all, in the first instance, it ought to be the proper responsibility of government to keep its citizens out of trouble!
Not that long ago such spying activities by democratic governments on its own citizens would have been unthinkable, as that was the stuff of dictatorships, not democracies; but in recent times tragically it has ACTUALLY happened in our democracies without a whimper of public debate (that of itself ought to be remarkable, but these days secrecy, spin and propaganda is managed by governments with considerable finesse). That governments have acted this way is nothing less than authoritarian action by deliberate stealth against their citizens; there is no simpler way of putting it, facts are facts. As a citizen, I consider such authoritarian action by my government as a basic and fundamental threat to our democratic freedoms, and that's an understatement.
Even in wartime (WWII for instance), the general public was made well aware of the special wartime needs for secrecy and other special wartime laws etc. Here, with nationwide surveillance, we're not told anything, nor have we ever been properly informed. And that our leaders are now actually discussing such matters at all, albeit with their usual wont of absolutely minimal information, is only because the secrecy surrounding them has been blown by whistleblowers, Snowden and others.
In WWII, millions of our citizens died to protect our democracies from authoritarian rule, now we're entering it little by little, by stealth in fact. Such inaction and inability by society to deal with problems of magnitude, such as governments getting beyond their calling and lording it over their citizens, is what a high ranking military commander, who years ago was my boss for a while, aptly called 'the creeping paralysis problem'. It's a core and fundamental issue facing modern democracies, it underpins why those in charge can wield so much power without riots occurring.
Today, we live in fear of losing those tragically hard-won gains for freedom. How else can we read it when, in the eyes of our leaders and the powerful elites, we citizens command such little respect and trust that they will not even discuss such key democratic issues with us? Clearly, the writing's on the wall for democracy (at least as we knew it) when these elites flatly refuse to debate matters of such fundamental importance with us 'plebs'. Moreover, the animosity is made considerably worse by the twaddle and unmitigated lies rolled out 'that mum's the word in the name of security you know', even a five-year-old knows operational matters aren't the same as why you conduct them.
Looking at our democracies holistically, any reasonable person has to conclude that these bastards really do have a damn fucking hide to treat us citizens in such a dismissive and cursory way. Crunch time has to come sooner or later; the big question is whether we citizens can muster enough gumption or have the balls to win.
When governments retort to criticisms with clichés such as 'it's all for your own safety' and similar patronizing twaddle then the inevitable question must be asked: the world, at least as I once knew it some years back, wasn't such a dangerous place, so who was in charge, either just fiddling or causing the problem, such to let it get in such a damnable mess. Right, it's the same pack of miserable bastards who are now leading us down the path towards totalitarianism.
Again, damn them! There, I've said it—and the clock's yet to strike thirteen.
(Let's hope Room 101's walls are painted in tasteful colours.)