Does benignly collected information, its gathering unknown to the groups and individuals being targeted, cross the line? Does the violation of privacy and rights occur only after the information is wrongfully, or rightly, used? Is the process part of the problem, not only the ends to which it is put?
The practical considerations of these questions have important impact in our democracy. They weigh the way we balance the activities of law and order and the guardianship of justice and liberty.
I see harm in information gathering before the commission of crimes as a precaution of security. First, the tendency of any organization is to use information it gathers, even if it means finding new ways to do so, seeing patterns that don’t exist, building non-existent intent, or justifying actions from whole cloth. J. Edgar Hoover did this with the information the FBI collected during Cointelpro, a program that secretly and surreptitiously monitored civil rights workers and activites, similar to the one operated by NYC. Even the tragic Tuskegee experiment, a secret health study, began with good intentions, but went irreparably wrong over its course. These examples are warnings and harbingers of the clear and present danger of gathering information when no crime is evident or pending.
Second, the broad gathering of information diverts resources from immediate issues. Information gathering can crowd out the way actual crimes are worked, in an effort to protect its secrecy.