NEW YORK — For more than a decade now, Americans have made peace with the uneasy knowledge that someone — government, business or both — might be watching.
We knew that the technology was there. We knew that the law might allow it. As we stood under a security camera at a street corner, connected with friends online or talked on a smart phone equipped with GPS, we knew, too, it was conceivable that we might be monitored.
Now, though, paranoid fantasies have come face to face with modern reality: The government IS collecting our phone records. The technological marvels of our age have opened the door to the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance of Americans’ calls.
Torn between our desires for privacy and protection, we’re now forced to decide what we really want.
“We are living in an age of surveillance,” said Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University’s School of Law in St. Louis who studies privacy law and civil liberties. “There’s much more watching and much more monitoring, and I think we have a series of important choices to make as a society — about how much watching we want.”
But the only way to make those choices meaningful, he and others said, is to lift the secrecy shrouding the watchers.
“I don’t think that people routinely accept the idea that government should be able to do what it wants to do,” said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It’s not just about privacy. It’s about responsibility … and you only get to evaluate that when government is more public about its conduct.”
The NSA, officials acknowledged this week, has been collecting phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers. In another program, it collects audio, video, email, photographic and Internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of the nine major Internet providers, including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Yahoo.
In interviews across the country in recent days, Americans said they were startled by the NSA’s actions. Abraham Ismail, a 25-year-old software designer taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi outside a Starbucks in Raleigh, N.C., said in retrospect, fears had prompted Americans to give up too much privacy.
“It shouldn’t be so just effortless,” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “to pull people’s information and get court orders to be able to database every single call, email. I mean, it’s crazy.”
The clash between security and privacy is far from new. In 1878, it played out in a court battle over whether government officials could open letters sent through the mail. In 1967, lines were drawn over government wiretapping.
Government used surveillance to ferret out Communists during the 1950s and to spy on Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders during the 1960s. But in earlier times, courts, lawmakers and the public eventually demanded curbs on such watching. Those efforts didn’t stop improper government monitoring, but they restrained it, said Christian Parenti, author of “The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror.”
The difference now, he and other experts say, is that enormous advances in personal technology and the public’s broad tolerance of monitoring because of shifting attitudes about terrorism and online privacy have given government and private companies significantly more power — and leeway — to monitor individual behavior.
The tolerance of government monitoring stems in large part from the wave of fear that swept the country after the 2001 attacks, when Americans granted officials broad new powers under the PATRIOT Act. But those attitudes are nuanced and shifting.
In a 2011 poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 54 percent of those surveyed felt protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms should be a higher priority for the government than keeping people safe from terrorists. At the same time, 64 percent said it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice some rights and freedoms to fight terrorism.
“Whenever something like 9/11 happens, it does tend to cause people to change their minds,” Richards said. “But I think what’s interesting is it has to be a long-term conversation. We can’t, whenever we’re scared, change the rules forever.”
But up until now, there’s been only limited debate about where and how to redraw the lines on surveillance. At the same time, explosive growth in social networking, online commerce, smart-phone technology and data harvesting for targeted marketing have introduced many Americans to all sorts of rich new experiences and conveniences. People have become enamored with the newest technology and media without giving hard thought to the risks or tradeoffs, experts say.
“This … has really dulled our sense of what privacy is, why it’s important,” Parenti said. “The fact of the matter is that millions of people are actively participating in keeping dossiers on themselves.”
It can, at first glance, seem a leap to draw a line between the way we share our private lives on Facebook or our search habits with Google and concerns about government surveillance. But surrendering privacy, whether to business or government, fundamentally shifts the balance of power from the watched to the watchers, experts say.