Salt Lake City resident Deborah Harrison, who is 57 and manages clinical trials at the University of Utah, recalled the uncertain days after 9/11 and said, while she was shocked by the government's efforts, she understood them. What concerns her more, she said, is whether private companies are monitoring her behavior.
"They can track all your preferences and who knows who sells what to whom. That disturbs me actually more, than I guess the purpose of using it for national security," she said.
And in Sacramento, Calif., Amos Gbeintor, an information analyst originally from Liberia, spoke of his frustrations with an increasing web of surveillance. He recalled a recent trip to New York City, where security cameras hovered over numerous street corners. Employers put video cameras in the workplace without telling employees. It's difficult anymore, he said, to find a private moment in life. The reports of NSA surveillance leave him disappointed in the Obama administration and, so far, in Americans' willingness to surrender their right to privacy.
"The younger generations are so used to putting everything about themselves out there that maybe they don't realize they're selling themselves out. I don't know whether they are desensitized to a loss of privacy, but they sure are reluctant about reacting," he said. But, maybe, this will wake people up, he said.
The revelations about the NSA's surveillance could indeed be a turning point in driving debate, Lyon said. But technology is so pervasive and those doing the surveillance so reluctant to share what they do, that the questions will take time to answer.
Richards, the Washington University professor, was reminded of a phone conversation a few years ago to a cousin in Britain who asked for his views on U.S. politics. Just as he was about to reply, Richards said, he took stock of the situation. A phone call across borders. A foreigner on one end of the line. Criticism of elected leaders. It seemed just the kind of conversation that might be picked up by a government computer. But there was no way to know — and so Richards said he decided he had no choice but to keep his mouth shut.
"It's a symptom of the times we're living in and the choices we're going to have to make ... one way or the other," he said. "We don't accept total surveillance in the name of crime prevention and I think people are coming to reject total surveillance in the name of terrorism prevention."
"But it's hard to reject surveillance if you don't know it's there."
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, N.C., Sharon Cohen in Chicago, Tracie Cone in Sacramento, Calif., and Michelle Price in Salt Lake City, Utah contributed to this story. Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features (at) ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AdGeller
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