Most Americans have probably long (and correctly) assumed that the federal government knew whom they called and what they read and said on the Internet. Communication providers collected that data; the federal government surely had access to it.
The real question is, should it?
Last week, the president and two senators told Americans that access really was no big deal.
"It's called protecting American," said Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"This is nothing particularly new," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the committee. "This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA (Foreign Intelligance Surveillance Act) authority, and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this."
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall disagrees about its acceptability, as do many of his constituents. The argument that if they haven't done anything wrong, they don't have anything to worry about isn't persuasive; far more accurate is the contention that because they haven't done anything wrong, they have a right to privacy even from their government.
This weekend, a young CIA contractor claimed to have leaked information about the scope of National Security Administration surveillance of civilians not suspected of any crime or national security threat.
"I don't want to live in a world where everything I do or say is recorded," said the man, 29-year-old Edward Snowdon.
Reportedly, only statistical information about the originator and recipient, including location and time, was collected, for the purpose of analyzing patterns to identify communications with known terrorists and contact with people in places where terrorism is suspected to originate. Then federal wiretap warrants could be obtained for those specific communications. That was the official scope of the program, anyway, and whoever heard of the government targeting citizens unfairly?
Right, IRS? Right, Justice Department?
The difficulty with targeting only suspects is that they don't become suspects until information is gathered. Most people understand that. They likely understand that the best chance of identifying those potential threats is through computerized data mining, and that human eyes really don't view many of those records - until they're flagged. But that's not entirely the point.
Some crimes could be averted if the government knew everything everyone did and thought, and if it had the ability to analyze that information accurately and completely - a big if, since so far the feds have failed even to keep track of individuals on terrorist watch lists, and terrorists know it. Does that give the government the right to all that information? What degree of threat justifies that intrusion into the privacy of many millions of people who are no threat at all? Colorado has more than 5 million people, and most of them have cell phones and computers. Most of them are citizens. How many of them are terrorists? How many have legitimate business or family reasons to communicate with individuals in places (like, say, Boston) where terrorists might hang out?
This level of monitoring may be acceptable to Americans, who after 9/11 have been willing to tolerate many erosions of their privacy. It should probably be assumed to be inevitable; when data exists, someone will use it. But neither of those conditions, nor even proven results, automatically make it right. They only make it worth discussing.