By now it is no longer a secret that the NSA has been conducting a massive data gathering effort on US citizens. Let me say right up front: doing this in secret and reviewed only in closed door hearings and subject only to a secret court is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. The potential for abuse, especially when combined with other excessive powers given to government by the Patriot Act, is simply unacceptable.
On the other side I completely see why having this data could in fact be extremely helpful in identifying criminal and terrorist activity before it occurs. Google’s big breakthrough in search was page rank, an algorithm that exploited the structure of the netwok. In quite an analogous fashion you could come up with some notion of a “crime rank” based on someone’s connections in the network. This would allow for discovery of people and activities from the data which is quite different from the traditional model of having to find someone first and then getting their data.
Now what we need as a society instead of just yelling at each other is an open discussion about these capabilities and whether or not there is a democracy compatible way of operating and deploying them. Again, just going ahead and doing it in secrecy is definitely not the answer. But neither is rejecting any and all kind of network analysis as a potentially legitimate tool in a democracy.
Additional thought: many people have been invoking the Fourth Amendment arguing against a program such as Prism. I believe that this is an important question and Fred phrases it as a question. But we should not simply argue that an extension of the Fourth to online systems is “obvious.” The technological situation today is dramatically different and we need to analyze what makes sense today for the meaning of “papers.” I have argued the same about guns in the context of the Second Amendment which refers to “arms.” So we (at least I) can’t really argue that technological progress is highly relevant for the Second but not for the Fourth.