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The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Paraphrased, that amendment guarantees the government will not peer into our lives unless it has reason to believe we've committed a crime. Some have called it "the right to be left alone."
We have asserted in this space before that the people we elect to public offices, up to and including the president of the United States, work for us. They comprise local, state and national governments of the people, by the people and for the people.
We've not made the same point about the companies we employ, because we didn't think we needed to.
But sometimes the obvious must be pointed out.
A debate currently roiling in Congress concerns both kinds of our employees - government and corporate - working together to intrude into our private lives to a degree envisioned only by George Orwell.
Companies that many of us hire - among them AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth - provided the U.S. government access to our personal communications, even though we trusted the companies to keep them private. Installation of equipment "that copied onto a government supercomputer every phone call, e-mail and Internet search made through the company's network," as stated in a Dec. 3 San Francisco Examiner story, has been widely reported.
"AT&T provided the National Security Agency with everything that ordinary Americans communicated over the Internet," said retired AT&T technician Mark Klein, who said he helped connect three years ago a device that did the copying, according to the Examiner. "This program included not only AT&T customers, but everyone who used the Internet because AT&T carries messages for other carriers also."
A May 2006 USA Today report said in retrieving our information, the National Security Agency amassed "the largest database ever assembled in the world."
The White House has pushed for legislation that would retroactively protect from lawsuits all of the telecommunications companies that provided our private conversations and Internet searches to the government. The Senate aided that bid Tuesday, passing Senate Bill 2248 with an amendment protecting the corporations from lawsuits.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, written to protect Americans from illegal eavesdropping, allows the government to conduct wiretapping when emergency needs arise, then to obtain warrants later. Its provisions provide a proper balance between national security and privacy rights.
Our elected officials, and some who hope to represent us in a larger capacity, recently weighed in on the issue. Sens. Evan Bayh, Richard Lugar and John McCain voted against Senate Amendment 3907 to Senate Bill 2248. In doing so, they voted to protect telecommunication companies from lawsuits for providing customer records to the government. Although Sen. Hillary Clinton didn’t vote on the amendment, she and Sen. Barack Obama were cosponsors to it, indicating their desire that Americans should be allowed to sue the companies. (Note: Votes of the Indiana senators and the presidential candidates were initially reported incorrectly, and have been corrected here.)
A related bill dubbed the RESTORE Act of 2007 was approved by the House Nov. 15. It contains civil-liberties protections but excludes a provision that would provide retroactive liability protection to telecommunications companies.
We thank Baron Hill, who was among the four Indiana representatives supporting the RESTORE Act bill.
A conference committee must work out differences between the House and Senate bills.
"What appears to have happened is a major change in how electronic surveillance is conducted in this country," Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell said in support of Americans' privacy on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Surveillance used to be particularized - investigators would pick a target and then intercept the communications of that target. But now, it appears the administration is using advances in technology to move to a wholesale surveillance regime, where everything is intercepted and then investigators sift through the hay to pick their targets." She called the wiretapping a 21st century equivalent of "the king's general warrants that our founders fought a revolution to avoid."
Our demand to the government and to any company entrusted with any pieces of our daily lives is this: Unless you have evidence we've committed a crime, leave us alone.
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