WASHINGTON - As Congress debates new rules for government eavesdropping, a top intelligence official says it is time that people in the United States changed their definition of privacy.
Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people's private communications and financial information.
Kerr's comments come as Congress is taking a second look at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Lawmakers hastily changed the 1978 law last summer to allow the government to eavesdrop inside the United States without court permission, so long as one end of the conversation was reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S.
The original law required a court order for any surveillance conducted on U.S. soil, to protect Americans' privacy. The White House argued that the law was obstructing intelligence gathering because, as technology has changed, a growing amount of foreign communications passes through U.S.-based channels.
The most contentious issue in the new legislation is whether to shield telecommunications companies from civil lawsuits for allegedly giving the government access to people's private e-mails and phone calls without a FISA court order between 2001 and 2007.
Some lawmakers, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, appear reluctant to grant immunity. Suits might be the only way to determine how far the government has burrowed into people's privacy without court permission.
The committee is expected to decide this week whether its version of the bill will protect telecommunications companies. About 40 wiretapping suits are pending.
The central witness in a California lawsuit against AT&T says the government is vacuuming up billions of e-mails and phone calls as they pass through an AT&T switching station in San Francisco.
Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician, helped connect a device in 2003 that he says diverted and copied onto a government supercomputer every call, e-mail, and Internet site access on AT&T lines.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the class-action suit, claims there are as many as 20 such sites in the U.S.
So the government now believes it has the prerogative to listen in on your phone calls, read your e-mails, and track your internet use without trifling with probable cause, much less a warrant. To top it off this is the same crowd that believes they have the right to grab you off the street and "disappear" you, possibly sending you who knows where for who knows how long, where you have no rights, and if they ever deign to let you go you have no legal recourse. I remember a titanic struggle against such a regime back in the 80s. I guess Bush decided the wrong side won.