Verizon customers have every reason to be outraged that the federal government is spying on them.
But they shouldn't be surprised.
The bottom line is this: Consumers in the digital age have no reason to believe their electronic communications are off-limits to government and private-sector entities.
That's a lousy deal — I'll be the first to say it. But it's also a factor of the gee-whiz, small-world technology that enables wireless communications, smartphones and anything-goes social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
"Whenever you have all these bits and bytes floating about, it's very easy for others to get ahold of it," said Rebecca Herold, a privacy consultant in Des Moines. "It's become very easy for a lot of people to access each other's data."
The Patriot Act for years has allowed federal authorities to compile a huge database of Americans' domestic communications. The Bush administration, in seeking passage of the bill, had argued that such information was crucial for keeping tabs on terrorists.
Late Wednesday, it was disclosed that the Obama administration has continued its predecessor's interest in electronic snooping. A classified court order came to light showing that the National Security Agency was collecting data on communications involving Verizon customers.
We're still learning about the scope of the spying program and how many companies may be involved. What's clear at this point is that the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gave the NSA permission in late April to collect the information, which apparently includes phone numbers and call durations but not the content of the calls.
The Obama administration said Thursday that the data collection "has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States."
For consumers, that makes things tricky. Who are we to second-guess the highest levels of government about national security? It's fair to assume that the president knows things we don't about potential threats to our well-being.
Moreover, it's not as though the big telecom companies didn't warn us this could happen.
Verizon Wireless, for example, says in its customer contract that even if you opt out from having personal information shared with others, the company still may do so "to comply with any laws, court order or subpoena."
AT&T says in its contract that it reserves the right to monitor customers' activities "to comply with applicable laws, regulations or other governmental or judicial requests."
So the question here isn't whether Verizon or AT&T can share information about you with Uncle Sam. They can — and will, if the feds say they want it.
The question is whether the government is overreaching in its surveillance of telecom customers.
In the past, Herold said, government snooping was generally limited to monitoring individuals, such as suspects in a crime.
"This new situation seems to open the door to something much more broad," she said. "It raises questions about whether privacy incursions should be allowed on such a broad basis."
Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University School of Law, said it's perfectly understandable that government officials would want to get their hands on as much information as possible.
"That's them doing their jobs," he said. "That's them trying to catch criminals."
At the same time, Richards said, it's important that limits be placed on such efforts.