Someday, a young girl will look up into her father's eyes and ask, "Daddy, what was privacy?" The father probably won't recall. I fear we've already forgotten that there was a time when a U.S. citizen's telephone calls were nobody else's business. A time when people would have been shocked and angered to learn that the government was compiling a detailed log of ostensibly private calls made and received by millions of Americans.
The Guardian reported Thursday that the U.S. government is collecting such information about customers of Verizon Business Network Services, one of the nation's biggest providers of phone and Internet services to corporations. Within hours it became clear that other phone companies are handing over the same kind of data and that the government is storing it indefinitely.
The Guardian got its scoop by obtaining a secret order signed by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the order was nothing more than a "three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years." Ho-hum.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., another intelligence committee member, also said that "this has been going on for seven years" and added that "to my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint." Later Thursday, the Washington Post reported the existence of another previously undisclosed National Security Agency program. This operation, code named PRISM, sweeps up vast quantities of email traffic from major providers such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. Unlike the phone snooping, however, PRISM targets foreign citizens and apparently is not allowed to rifle through the inboxes of U.S. citizens.
Authority for the collection of phone-call data and the perusal of private emails comes from the Patriot Act, the Bush-era antiterrorism measure that the Obama administration has come to love.
Obama vigorously defended the programs Friday, saying they were effective and had withstood congressional and judicial scrutiny. "When you actually look at the details," the president said, the administration had struck a good balance between privacy and security.
But that's the problem. We haven't been able to look at the details. We weren't allowed to know these programs existed.
In fact, our knowledge is still sketchy. The Verizon court order compels the company to provide "on an ongoing daily basis all call detail records or 'telephony metadata' created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad, or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls." Telephony metadata includes the phone numbers of both parties, their physical location to the extent it is evident, the time and duration of a call and any other identifying information. It does not include the content of any calls.
So the president is right when he says that nobody is listening to our phone conversations. But come on.
If the NSA's computers were to decide there was something about calls to and from a certain number that merited further investigation, how many nanoseconds do you think it would take the agency to learn whose number that was? And if the number were that of a mobile phone, the "metadata" provided by the phone company would include the location of cellphone towers that relay the customer's calls thus providing a record of the customer's movements.
Feinstein described the program as "lawful" and maintained that it is effective. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's consistent with our traditional values.
Obama says he welcomes a debate on these programs. I wish he had sought and found a way to initiate that discussion rather than waiting until journalists forced his hand.
Maybe that old idea about a law-abiding individual's contacts and movements being none of the government's business is a quaint relic of a bygone era. Our lives are recorded in a way that was impossible in earlier times, and history suggests there is no turning back.
But it is precisely because of this technological momentum that we should fight to hold on to the shreds of privacy that remain. If the collection of phone-call data is so innocuous and routine, why are the surveillance court's orders stamped top secret? Is the harvesting of emails really confined to foreigners? Why can't we know more, even in broad terms, about this snooping? What's there to hide? We have to ask these questions now, while we still remember what privacy is. Or was.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.