First, they get the phone records. In this case, the phone companies apparently just gave it to them. Protestations that these include "only" phone numbers called and nothing else collapse upon careful examination. Seized cell phone records (and their logs of emails, websites visited and texts sent) are now in the Justice Department's hands along with all the numbers called by over 100 reporters on 20 phone lines. Starting with the phone numbers called, investigators can then go to commercial email providers (like Google's Gmail) and seek records of everyone who the reporters contacted. After all, they can now search the providers' databases against the acquired names and phone numbers!
Email on AP's servers wasn't seized -- that could never be done "secretly". But some AP reporters probably use their non-company email as well and investigators can go after that. Internet providers are under enormous pressure to give up those records and many, like Google, will do so voluntarily upon official government request. They've already done it for the Chinese government to help it go after its critics.
So anybody who gets a phone call from one of the seized lines during this period can now be investigated more aggressively without subpeonas using the powers of investigation the government already has and information it has already gathered in secret from reporters who had promised them anonymity.
Once you're in the mix, the government can then declare you an investigation "target" and legally seize read all your email and seize all the email of anybody your wrote. All of this activity is legally covered and, based on past government practice, can be done without informing you.
What's more there are now indications that the government isn't stopping there. According to the Washington Post, you don't even need to be part of an investigation.
The Guardian's Glen Greenwald argues that such numbers are only possible if the government is recording every phone call, text and email being transmitted in this country. Several FBI whistle-blowers and former agents, he points out, have attested to that scope of activity.
To say you will be part of a prosecution or that the investigation would reach such lengths may, at this point, border on paranoia. But not long ago most of us would have considered paranoid the idea that such collection of data is even taking place. "Mass surveillance is the hallmark of a tyrannical political culture," Greenwald wrote. To deny the danger in all this is to trust that the government won't abuse this power or consider your completely legal activities to be dangerous.
Does the Obama Administration deserve that trust? Its stated position is that the government can collect and use any information of this type if there is a security reason to do so. The issue is what is a "security reason" and, since courts have been effectively removed from the process, that definition is completely in the hands of the Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI and the National Security Agency. If one of those agencies says you have no right to privacy, you don't.
There are many people in this country working in opposition to the government. Many of them oppose policies and challenge laws. Many of them have relationships with similar activists in other countries and take up issues that affect those other countries. Should we really feel comfortable giving some government functionary the power to decide if our activities are "dangerous" or "pose a threat"? This is an Administration that has criminally charged Internet activists for violating terms of service agreements, smeared the reputations of countless legitimate activists in all kinds of movements and kept scores of people in Guantamo's prison for years without charges, in most cases knowing and even conceding that they are innocent of any. Does that track record offer any assurance that they will be judicious and restrained with your information?
Should we trust them with the powers they have amassed? Clearly not, because, given the facts we already know, mistrust isn't paranoia; it's knowing the facts.
Alfredo Lopez is a member of the http://thiscantbehappening.net">This Can't Be Happening collective which published an on-line publication where he specializes in covering technology. He's also Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.