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Privacy advocates fight for ground lost after 9/11

Five years after surrendering privacy for security, many challenge the scope of US government domestic surveillance.

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The trade-off was one plenty of citizens and lawmakers willingly made after 9/11: less individual privacy for better national security. Five and a half years later, many are rethinking, even challenging, the government's expanded use of surveillance inside the US, spurred by revelations about the scope and number of new programs.

Among them:

•An FBI finding that agents "misused" their authority to obtain national security letters, which allow the bureau to collect information about someone's telephoning, reading, and buying habits. Congress is considering whether to revoke or limit the FBI's authority.

•News that the New York Police Department created hundreds of secret files on people who planned to protest at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Some protesters have sued the city and NYPD over the matter, and a federal judge is now weighing whether the police must release all those files.

•A lawsuit to halt the National Security Agency's electronic eavesdropping program, which had allowed the NSA to listen in on some Americans' phone conversations without first obtaining warrants.

During times of crisis, from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, the Fourth Amendment right to be free of "unreasonable searches and seizures" has lost some ground. Today is no exception. The 9/11 terror attack created, in the words of former congressman and 9/11 commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton, an "astounding intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans."

But now, he says, things are beginning to change. "Since 9/11 ... the security folks have won all of the arguments," Mr. Hamilton said during a phone interview. "But now you're beginning to see some push back in the media, the courts, and in Congress."

Below is background on key government programs – at least those that are known – to try to ferret out individuals who may pose security threats inside the US.


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