NSA Program Further Blurs Line on Privacy

The government may have access to personal phone records.
The government may have access to personal phone records. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)
By Arshad Mohammed and Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Phone companies know every number we dial. Grocery stores watch what we buy, search engines track what we look for on the Internet, banks count each penny we deposit or withdraw.

All of that information could become available to the government as it works to thwart terrorist activity.

This week's disclosure that the National Security Agency is amassing phone calling records for millions of Americans highlighted how blurred the notion of consumer privacy has become in the digital age.

It's difficult to know how much personal information may become available to government investigators because no single law governs how companies handle the data they collect about customers. Instead, there is a patchwork of statutes that prescribe varying rules on the privacy of everything from video store rentals and credit reports to medical data and phone logs. Beyond that, companies have privacy policies that are often impenetrable, leaving consumers unsure what rights, if any, they have.

American consumers have become accustomed to surrendering data in return for various conveniences -- discounts at the grocery store, targeted advertising online -- and some seem untroubled about sharing information with the government, particularly if it is in the interest of fighting terrorism.

"I wish I could say I was bothered by it but I'm not," said Jacques Domenge, a 28-year-old Potomac man who visited a Cingular Wireless store in Rockville yesterday to replace a stolen phone.

"If it's only done to protect people and find patterns that help the government find terrorists -- I don't think it will work, by the way, but let's say it will -- then I am all for it," he said, adding that he had no problems with Cingular -- or any other phone company -- turning over records.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday, 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, including 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

"The value of fighting terrorism, in a lot of our research, seems to be more important to the public than what they perceive as violations of their privacy -- so far," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll and vice president of the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J.

Newport said views of the NSA program -- which was disclosed on Thursday by USA Today -- should be viewed in the broader context of Americans grappling with more and more of their personal data being collected and analyzed by businesses. "When we ask what's the most important problem facing the country, we don't see any signs that privacy is beginning to percolate up," he said.

For many, the appeal of online banking, quick Web searches and instant credit reports that allow a customer to walk into a car dealership and drive off a few hours later with a new set of wheels is irresistible.

"We love that. We love the cellphone. We love our EZ-passes. We love Google," said Jim Dempsey, a privacy expert and policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "At the same time I think people have this deep sense of unease that information is being collected about them and they don't have control over it and they don't quite know where it is going."

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