Perhaps the most shocking thing about the recently revealed anti-terrorism surveillance operations is that they're not all that surprising.
Americans have consented to a sweeping surrender of their civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Meanwhile, the proliferation of information technology allows the collection and commercialization of all sorts of personal data. How else does an Internet retailer know what you want to buy before you do?
Nonetheless, the government's mass seizure of phone and email records — metadata, as it's called — should spark new soul-searching about how much freedom from government snooping we're willing to sacrifice in exchange for possibly foiling a terrorist plot.
We're not suggesting the data has been misused to violate the rights of Americans. But we should remember something that sets this country apart from totalitarian regimes: constitutional guarantees against governmental monitoring of the private lives of law-abiding citizens.
Do we really want a great Orwellian database and electronic tracking of U.S. citizens? Facebook might sell your information, but Facebook can't put you in jail; the government can.
The Patriot Act, which was passed six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, eroded privacy rights and has been renewed by Congress, which in 2011 approved the provision that's now being cited as authority for the phone surveillance program.
To its credit, the Obama administration has greatly increased congressional and court oversight of intelligence activities started by the Bush administration. That's why both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are defending the surveillance programs and insisting on their legality.
But when a government contractor's employee who has access to classified materials claims that "any analyst at any time can target anyone. ... I, sitting at my desk, certainly have the authorities to wiretap anyone — from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president," Americans should demand assurances that this is not happening and could not happen.
Edward Snowden, the former CIA computer technologist who leaked documents about the metadata collections and another National Security Agency program that accesses the servers of major technology companies to track foreign nationals, is an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton.
Booz Allen Hamilton earned $1.3 billion from government intelligence work during the past fiscal year; has 25,000 employees, half of whom hold top-secret security clearances, and serves as a revolving door between government intelligence agencies and its executive suites.
Other private companies are also reaping a bonanza from increased reliance of government intelligence agencies on private contractors and the insatiable desire for more data.
This raises another concern: How much of the government's quest for more data is driven by genuine security concerns and how much by the profit motive of these private contractors?
If former President Dwight D. Eisenhower were around today, he'd probably be warning us to watch out for the "intelligence industrial complex."