NSA revelations force question: What do we want?

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In a 2011 poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 54 percent of those surveyed felt protecting citizens’ rights and freedoms should be a higher priority for the government than keeping people safe from terrorists. At the same time, 64 percent said it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice some rights and freedoms to fight terrorism.

“Whenever something like 9/11 happens, it does tend to cause people to change their minds,” Richards said. “But I think what’s interesting is it has to be a long-term conversation. We can’t, whenever we’re scared, change the rules forever.”

But up until now, there’s been only limited debate about where and how to redraw the lines on surveillance. At the same time, explosive growth in social networking, online commerce, smart-phone technology, and data harvesting for targeted marketing have introduced many Americans to all sorts of rich new experiences and conveniences. People have become enamored with the newest technology and media without giving hard thought to the risks or tradeoffs, experts say.

“This … has really dulled our sense of what privacy is, why it’s important,” Parenti said. “The fact of the matter is that millions of people are actively participating in keeping dossiers on themselves.”

It can, at first glance, seem a leap to draw a line between the way we share our private lives on Facebook or our search habits with Google and concerns about government surveillance. But surrendering privacy, whether to business or government, fundamentally shifts the balance of power from the watched to the watchers, experts say.

Americans may have largely accepted the idea of sharing personal information with businesses or in open forums as the necessary tradeoff for the use of new technologies. But they have done so without stopping to consider what those businesses are doing with it or how police or security officials might tap into it.

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