I've got some reservations, but on balance I think he did a good thing and I'm rooting for him to evade prosecution. I'm generally positively-disposed towards whistleblowers, even if they break laws in the process.
I have the same mixed sentiments, Justin.
The irony of it all is that he "exposed" relatively benign programs that are an offshoot of The Patriot Act. Only a handful of people in our government know what really goes on, as people in Washington can't keep their mouths shut. With 9-11, we as a country learned that we are in a war without end in the foreseeable future. People who would have us all living under Sharia law hate who we are and what we represent. Asymmetrical warfare is all about finding ways to do more with less, as with the Boston Marathon bombers. Those two - had they been halfway competent - could have done a *lot* more damage. As it is, they did plenty. Without video cameras (mostly private use) these two might have gotten away with what they did and proceeded on with their plan to do great damage in Time Square.
I guess I know a lot about many aspects of this. As much as an unmentioned Brit will come on and spew racial hatred about the Irish, I do appreciate that the (now defunct) IRA haunted London almost
as much as the Anglo Saxons have caused generations of harm to the Irish. It's warfare plain and simple. Because of that, London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. You cannot do anything anywhere in London without a video camera capturing it. Real time software - the kind of stuff I was trained in during my biomedical engineering grad school days - performs facial recognition on the fly and can know who is where when need be. Because of this, it's very difficult to do harm to any British politician or the Royal Family. And the everyday Brit is incredibly safe, except for your random act of street violence.
What the NSA was doing was monitoring not the phone conversations, but the records of who was contacting whom, how many times, when, and for how long. Inferential statistical techniques are used to identify patterns of behavior the way people who do fraud analysis (credit cards, banks, healthcare) piece together the players in crime schemes. The NSA pretty much strong-armed the cell phone carriers to submit these data so they could be reviewed. Supercomputers go through the billions of connections of Person A with Person B and looks for patterns of communication between citizens here and neer-do-wells offshore. Many terror plots have been identified and thwarted long before anyone knew they were being conceived. We are safer because of it, but there's little appreciation that these efforts actually make us safer.
The issue is with our Constitutional rights and our (perceived) right to privacy. The thing we don't realize is that there is very little privacy. If you Google something, the trace is out there forever. Google about "inappropriate" porn and someone will know about it. If you buy something with a credit card, your pattern of use is known by the credit card companies and all the vendors they sell these data to. In my line of work I know about the health and heath care utilization of millions of people. HIPAA laws fortunately protect people from having these data used inappropriately, but I *will* be involved in (for lack of a better description) hunting people down who use the ER for primary care, or end up in the hospital because they're not regularly filling their diabetes or asthma meds. This is the world we live in. We have data recording every movement you make, and we have both the hardware and software to mine those data for patterns we're trying to monitor. By using various services, you have unwittingly given up some of your privacy. Sign up for special deals with your CVS card and you have sold your rights to shopping privacy. People know you get condoms, and what brand. They know how you clean your home, and what treats your dog eats. And these data are sold again and again. Your mailbox gets filled with junk mail, asking you to buy more of the same and convincing you that you need things you never knew you needed.