WASHINGTON — A top intelligence official says it is time that Americans change their definition of privacy.
Privacy can no longer mean anonymity, said Donald M. Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, he said, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people's private communications and financial data.
Kerr's comments come as Congress is taking a second look at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Lawmakers changed the 1978 law last summer to allow the government to eavesdrop inside the U.S. without court permission, so long as one end of the conversation is reasonably believed to be outside the country.
The original law required a court order for any surveillance conducted on U.S. soil. The most contentious issue in the new legislation is whether to shield telecommunications companies from civil lawsuits for allegedly giving the government access to people's private e-mails and phone calls without a court order between 2001 and 2007.
Some lawmakers, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, appear reluctant to grant immunity. The panel is expected to decide this week if its version of the bill will protect telecommunications companies.
Lawsuits might be the only way to determine how far the government has burrowed into people's privacy without court permission. A key witness in a California lawsuit against AT&T Inc. says the government is vacuuming up billions of e-mails and phone calls as they pass through an AT&T San Francisco switching station.