The revelation yesterday that the National Security Agency in Fort Meade might have built a database from the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans again raises the question: Does anyone have any privacy left?
Government, corporations and Internet providers are all tapping vast reservoirs of data on the daily lives of ordinary people. Businesses, in particular, increasingly scrutinize what Americans eat, wear, watch and read. Now, according to USA Today, the National Security Agency, the world's largest spy agency, wants everyone's phone records.
There seems to be no place to hide. The public is under the constant scrutiny of fast computers plugged into global networks and endowed with an essentially limitless appetite for data.
"Ten years ago, they wouldn't have compiled such a database because they didn't have the technological tools to use it once they did compile it," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
Now, computers can plow through the equivalent of a national library in short order and pluck out critical information, using pattern recognition, keywords and other so-called data-mining techniques. The resulting portrait says a lot about who a person is: It can describe one's tastes, interests and appetites - things a person might not want others to know.
Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, says that in opinion polls over the past 15 years, about 80 percent of Americans have consistently said that they don't want corporations to share or sell information about consumers.
But Congress has rebuffed efforts to curb the sale and transfer of that information, Mierzwinski said. For businesses, it is a valuable source of marketing data.
And it isn't just U.S. corporations that are looking over the shoulders of Americans. In January, the Justice Department demanded Google's search records in a quest for data with which to defend an anti-pornography law from a court challenge. The federal government did not seek names, but that did little to mollify privacy advocates.
"Do we have any privacy left?" Mierzwinski said. "Not as much as we should, because both commercial companies and the government are using intrusive surveillance tools to track our financial and physical movements through the world."
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made Americans more tolerant of government snooping for security purposes, he conceded. But he thinks Americans are increasingly wary of the growing interest that government and industry take in their everyday lives.
The New York Times reported in December that the NSA was conducting warrantless eavesdropping of international calls to and from the United States. A University of Connecticut poll in February reported that 52 percent of the respondents thought the government should be required to get court approval before conducting surveillance on suspected terrorists.
But many Americans say they have nothing to fear from the surveillance because they have nothing to hide. USA Today reported that the NSA domestic eavesdropping program did not include listening to or recording conversations.
"I'm all for national security, because we definitely have a threat out there," said Jane Colarossi of Eldersburg, who has friends who work at the NSA. "If people are not doing things that are questionable, then they shouldn't be concerned."
"I just don't believe in the right to privacy in this country," said Justin Morgan, 21, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a resident of Crofton. "If you live in a nation, you're part of a group and you have to contribute to that group. On campus, I am pretty much a part of a community, and some things I have to give up to get benefits."
Others were more ambivalent about the potential for abuse of the records. Monsignor George Moeller of St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air expressed unease about the government tracking his phone calls because that information might violate the confidentiality of people who seek counseling.
A sweeping surveillance program, Moeller said, would be justified only in rare cases in which there is a clear security threat.
"The government should have good proof and solid information on plans that could be harmful to the population before it goes meddling in the private lives of its citizens," he said.
Some appeared torn between concerns about their privacy and the nation's security.
"I'm Verizon, so they might have me in there," said Phillip Elias, a Pittsburgh businessman in Annapolis yesterday, as he tapped his cell phone.
Verizon was one of the three big telecommunications companies to provide the NSA with data, USA Today reported.
"If we're going to give up some of your liberties for a safer country, that's a trade-off we're going to have to make," said Elias. "But when it's really me, it gets a little less comfortable."
For civil liberties and privacy groups, the NSA's actions confirmed what they had suspected and feared.
Timothy Sparapani, a lawyer who tracks privacy issues for the American Civil Liberties Union office in Washington, said the implications of warrantless domestic surveillance of phone calls by the NSA are "profound."
"We now have the government gathering [data on] every person's phone and e-mail traffic," he said. "We're not talking about al-Qaida. We're talking about tens of millions of Americans and treating them like suspects."
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said: "Collecting all the phone calls of all Americans is kind of the classic data-mining horror that we've all been worried about."
Many privacy advocates regard the NSA's collection of phone records as illegal. Joe Onek of the Open Society Institute, a former Clinton administration official and an expert on privacy issues, pointed out that there is no dispute that the FBI could seek such records without a warrant. The bureau does need a warrant, though, to listen in on conversations.
But there are conflicting views on the legality of the NSA program. The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that Baltimore police could obtain basic phone records in a robbery case - numbers called along with time and duration - without a warrant. In the case, Smith v. Maryland, the court ruled that people had no expectation of privacy in such cases.
Sparapani argued that the ruling does not apply to the NSA, which Congress explicitly tried to restrict in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA, he said, "unequivocally commands that the president get a court order for information about whom you call."
The NSA, while not commenting on yesterday's report, said the agency "operates within the law."
It is not clear how the NSA might use the telephone data. Presumably, the federal government is looking for people who show a pattern of calls to, say, terrorism suspects, the embassies of rogue states and other suspicious places.
In a statement yesterday, President Bush did not deny that the NSA had assembled the database of domestic calls. He insisted, though, that his administration was "not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."
After the Times' reports in December, the White House said the president has broad authority under the Constitution and the USA Patriot Act to take steps necessary to protect the nation in wartime.
On Jan. 19, a Justice Department opinion asserted that the president has the right "to conduct warrantless surveillance of enemy forces for intelligence purposes to detect and disrupt armed attacks on the United States."
Sun reporters Sandy Alexander, Siobhan Gorman, Nia-Malika Henderson, Laura McCandlish and Josh Mitchell contributed to this article.