It seems like punctuated equilibrium with a slight downward slippery slope -- it generally gets worse (due to investigators pushing the limits little by little) until legal decisions or technological changes push back and make big changes one way or another (not always for the better).
"It seems like punctuated equilibrium with a slight downward slippery slope -- it generally gets worse."
Istanbul has been in the grips of a military crackdown of a peaceful protest about a park. In Syria, something like 90,000 people have died fighting an authoritarian regime, with no end in sight. In Iran, people won't even vote in the election (where voting is compulsory) because they know that the elections are rigged. On the other side of the coin, in the UK, you're subject to government surveillance in every public space. It's a trade-off, and the choices aren't as clear as you might believe if you limited your knowledge to what you read on Reddit and HN.
My point is that you have to be pretty cynical to suggest that the USA -- where we let the Occupy protesters linger in front of federal buildings until they were nothing but de facto homeless encampments -- has been on an endlessly downward slippery slope. We live in one of the most free and privileged countries on earth, and it's important to keep a sense of perspective on these things.
I don't necessarily like that the NSA is tracking phone calls, but I'm also keenly aware of the fact that they aren't dragging people out of their homes in the middle of the night, and that we don't have cars exploding daily in New York City. All things considered, we have it pretty damned well.
My point was that things get worse steadily at a pretty slow rate, day over day, and then occasionally there are big shifts for the better (or for the worse), generally in the form of legal decisions or major tech changes. The overall trend might even be net positive (especially for women/minorities in the US over the past 100 years, if not white males).
There's not a monotonically nondecreasing level of freedom, though.
It's like 100 98 98 97 96 130 (ITAR limited) 125 120 120 119 90 (Patriot) 89 88 140 (default to HTTPS) 135 135 133 etc.
"There's not a monotonically nondecreasing level of freedom, though."
Well, if we do nothing but maintain the current level of freedom, we're doing pretty well, historically speaking.
That said, I don't think we're on a downward slope at all -- that's just techno-nerd catastrophic thinking. The problem is that technology races forward and allows new forms of communication, our sense of entitlement increases, as does the power of anyone (governmental or private) to be intrusive. It's a constant battle against change itself, not necessarily against the surveillance state.
For example, the supreme court said that phone call metadata was collectable without a warrant in the 70s. The fact that Reddit just became aware of this fact is not a fundamental change in reality, or an example of things getting worse -- it's just an indication of how technology has changed this generation's expectations of what "privacy" means.
You can't deny that CALEA, PATRIOT, FAA, the NDAA, CIA's black site and gitmo programs, drone warfare, drone warfare against US citizens overseas, etc. weren't steps back.
While ssh replacing rsh, SSL-by-default, no crypto export restrictions for (almost all) commercial software, certain legal decisions (mainly in the 9th), etc. were steps forward. This is all independent of what reddit/hn people generally know about the situation.
"auto-updating" client software and the cloud have advantages and disadvantages at the same time.
"You can't deny that CALEA, PATRIOT, FAA, the NDAA, CIA's black site and gitmo programs, drone warfare, drone warfare against US citizens overseas, etc. weren't steps back."
I can't? Most of those things don't affect US citizens. Drone warfare arguably saves lives (you'd rather that we send soliders to do the same things?). The other things present vague, hypothetical risks (when they present risks at all), and tangible, quantifiable benefits.
Look, I'm not saying that I agree with everything that's in the Patriot Act, or that I think that the US government should have a blank check to bomb citizens via remote-controlled helicopter. But when you look at the actual risks to citizens, you find that they're pretty theoretical. The people who are objecting the loudest usually have the least reason to object (which is, ironically, part of the problem -- organizations like the ACLU have traditionally had a very tough time proving harms to citizens, and as a result, their lawsuits keep getting tossed).
But if you're going to push me to be the devil's advocate, I can quite comfortably go to the argument I made before: we don't have cars blowing up (or people walking into cafes with bombs strapped to their chests) in our cities on a regular basis, and we manage to achieve that level of safety without needing the intrusiveness of the security state of even a "reasonable", western democracy like Israel. Empirically, then, we're doing OK. A lot of the teeth-gnashing going on here is breathless exaggeration from people who have such peaceful lives that they have literally nothing better to worry about.
When did we ever have cars blowing up on a regular basis. I get your point about general life in America being OK, but that is only because many people turn a blind eye to the evils that our government is doing in our name that work against us in the longer view.
There are short-term benefits that you're talking about, but long-term costs that you seem to be ignoring as well.