Steve Chapman
Some years ago, when tax simplification was being discussed, a cartoonist came up with the most likely way the IRS would achieve it: a postcard-sized 1040 form consisting of two lines: 1) How much did you make? 2) Send it in.

That's comparable to where Americans are headed when it comes to keeping private information away from the eyes of law enforcement, intelligence agencies and other government bodies. "Are there things you would prefer to keep secret?" the official inquiry will read. "Please provide a full list."

Actually, you already did. At least it's a fair possibility, considering that the National Security Agency has been requiring Verizon and other phone companies to turn over records of pretty much every call, domestic or overseas, going back to 2006.

If you've made a phone call in the past seven years, the NSA almost certainly is aware of it. It knows whom you called, how long you talked and maybe where you were. Seven years -- a period of serene, unbroken continuity between George W. Bush, who was correctly seen as an enemy of civil liberties, and Barack Obama, who was mistakenly taken (by me, among others) to be their friend.

Nor does the invasion necessarily end there. George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr noted that if NSA personnel "have an order for phone calls, they could also have it for emails and other electronic records." From all appearances, this may be the most far-reaching surveillance program ever conducted under our anti-terrorism laws.

But there's more. The Washington Post reported, "The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person's movements and contacts over time."

Though the program legally may target only foreigners abroad, U.S. citizens may become collateral damage. Unlike the phone records sweep, though, it reveals not only who is communicating but what they say.

Remind me why we have a Constitution? Because of its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, the government normally can get a warrant to invade someone's home and papers only if it has tangible grounds to think the person did something illegal and only if it specifies what it's looking for. Searches require what lawyers refer to as individualized suspicion.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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