With the current news on the the NSA and FBI collecting meta data from cell phone companies, and that seven of the biggest internet companies provide data directly to them as well, I wonder if they really are able to process that much data.
Given that the Boston bombers managed to be invisible despite a lot of suspicious activity you wonder if the ability to collect data is far in excess of the ability to make sense of it. Of course it could be possible that they did know, but don't want to advertise that fact. If they point out the freckle on your face from space, it might make "the enemy" know too much. If they point out the bombers before they strike, people might realize they need to be more careful.
Thinking about the data that is being collected, if you could actually handle the volume and fuzziness of the information, there is a lot of amazing (and frightening) stuff you could do with it. Just knowing the identity, time, and location of each side of a phone call can tell you virtually everything you would ever want to know about an entire net of individuals. Even without any voice at all, associations could be a powerful way to know what everyone is doing.
For example, watching people who call a political party office or candidate or a donation line could identify who supports a party. Assuming the political leadership wants to target the opposition, no need for any messy burglars. You get a fine list of people to screw or attack in some way. Any number of useful associations could uncover people involved in adultery or prostitution or drugs who could easily be swayed to your view.
Imagine using this kind of information and collections of people and handing them over to a supporting business or organization for political benefit or even profit. They couldn't use the information directly but if they knew a bunch of people were doing something bad it could be massively useful for blackmail. Information wouldn't have to be used by a government itself; unscrupulous individuals could take advantage just by working in the right agency. Bradley Manning was just a private who worked in an office with access to years of secret cables and no security.
At no time in history has a government had such a massive ability to collect and process information on its citizens and others. Of course at no time has anyone had to crunch this much information either. The thing about this is even if you can't do it now, eventually you will figure it out. Even delayed intelligence of this quality has a lot of value.
Assuming you can process the data and make actual valuable information from it, someone has to decide what to do with it. Ultimately whoever has access to this and can figure it out has unimaginable power over everyone: everything people do is tracked, categorized and saved forever just in case it becomes useful. I can't even comprehend how frightening this is. 1984 might be far too tame as a comparison.
I hope it's too complicated and large to make sense of it as a whole otherwise we are all screwed. Maybe in the coming days people will start to estimate the magnitude of the data and what it might take process it. All we can hope for is that the government really was incapable of identifying the Boston bombers because the data is still too massive to use effectively.
I can for a fact say I have received no NSL requesting accessing to my blog; of course I would have to lie so you there is no way to know, like with all of the companies giving access.
At least we still can keep our thoughts private. So far...