As Government Surveillance Powers Grow, Privacy Is Redefined

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the public has had several glimpses of the government's growing surveillance powers. The Bush administration had a program so secret, it dispensed with judicial warrants altogether. The resulting scandals and lawsuits appear to have done little to roll back the spying.

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Since the events of 9/11, the public has had several glimpses into the government's growing surveillance powers. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the resulting scandals and the losses appear to have done little to roll back that surveillance.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The first real case of surveillance blowback came as early as 2002.

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DANIEL SCHORR: The most far-reaching plan yet for domestic snooping is being researched in the Pentagon. It is called Total Information Awareness, TIA.

KASTE: That was NPR's Daniel Schorr, one of the people none too pleased at the time about the government's data mining plans. The program had a creepy logo - a variation on the pyramid with the all-seeing eye, along with the motto in Latin: knowledge is power. Congress was so spooked, it cut the program's funding.

DANIEL WEITZNER: It was a Pyrrhic victory.

KASTE: Daniel Weitzner is an MIT computer scientist who worked on privacy issues in the Obama White House. He says maybe Congress was too quick to condemn that program.

WEITZNER: Part of what they shut down was the development of privacy controls, which I think certainly everyone on the privacy side, myself included, wishes we had in place today.

KASTE: Because it's clear now that the spying continued - it just went deeper underground. Two years later, the news media found out that the Bush administration had a surveillance program so secret, it dispensed with judicial warrants altogether. That set off a round of lawsuits, most of them knocked down in court. Surveillance continued under President Obama, and one of the few times he was challenged on this during last year's campaign was on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The truth is actually we have modified them and built a legal structure and safeguards in place that weren't there before - on a whole range of issues. Now, they're not real sexy issues. They're not the kind of things that you're going to...

JON STEWART: You don't know what I find sexy.

KASTE: But the public doesn't find this issue sexy - or at least it would seem that most people aren't too concerned. Just yesterday, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a poll showing 56 percent support for the newly disclosed phone record tracking program. Some scholars have suggested that 20th century standards of privacy were actually a historical anomaly and that they're unworkable in our new digital global village. But Neil Richards at Washington University School of Law disagrees.

NEIL RICHARDS: Lots of things we care about greatly are recent 20th or 21st century notions - sexual equality, racial equality, gay rights.

KASTE: People still care about privacy, he says, but in the 21st century it will be a challenge to figure out just what privacy is. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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