It can, at first glance, seem a leap to draw a line between the way we share our private lives on Facebook or our search habits with Google and concerns about government surveillance. But surrendering privacy, whether to business or government, fundamentally shifts the balance of power from the watched to the watchers, experts say.
Americans may have largely accepted the idea of sharing personal information with businesses or in open forums as the necessary tradeoff for the use of new technologies. But they have done so without stopping to consider what those businesses are doing with it or how police or security officials might tap into it.
"We've allowed surveillance of all kinds to be normalized, domesticated, such that we frequently fail to tell the difference between harmful and helpful surveillance," said David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. "And we assume all too easily that if it's high tech, it's better."
In interviews in recent days, many people described a growing sense of unease about the trade-offs between privacy, technology and the desire for safety.
In Chicago, Joey Leonard, a clerk at the Board of Trade, sat outside at lunch hour checking apps on his smart phone and ruminated about the government's actions. Leonard, a recent college graduate, noted that he was just 11 at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks. He approved of the heightened security measures to prevent a recurrence. But he said it has also becomes clear that terrorists will act even if the government is watching, raising questions about the tradeoffs.
"Society is changing and technology is changing. I understand there are threats but I do think this is a little too much," Leonard said. "The government is trying to control everything. I feel like I'm being watched 24/7. ... It's like they're trying to get their fingers in every aspect of your life and I don't think it's helping."
In Salt Lake City, Utah, truck driver Elijah Stefoglo hadn't heard about the NSA's program, but said everyday interactions with technology give him plenty to consider. Stefoglo, who lives in Minneapolis, pointed out that most newer rigs come equipped with GPS tracking and even camera systems, technology he worries could be abused. At the same time, he noted, many states are fitting driver's licenses with computer chips to track and store data, posing yet another threat to privacy.
Expectations of privacy have slowly evolved, and younger people are growing up with a different standard, he said.
"They're trying to put it in their heads that it's normal. You have to do this. This is for your security. If you do this, you're going to be safer," he said. "In what way? Criminals are still going to do whatever they want."
Salt Lake City resident Deborah Harrison, who is 57 and manages clinical trials at the University of Utah, recalled the uncertain days after 9/11 and said, while she was shocked by the government's efforts, she understood them. What concerns her more, she said, is whether private companies are monitoring her behavior.
"They can track all your preferences and who knows who sells what to whom. That disturbs me actually more, than I guess the purpose of using it for national security," she said.
And in Sacramento, Calif., Amos Gbeintor, an information analyst originally from Liberia, spoke of his frustrations with an increasing web of surveillance. He recalled a recent trip to New York City, where security cameras hovered over numerous street corners. Employers put video cameras in the workplace without telling employees. It's difficult anymore, he said, to find a private moment in life. The reports of NSA surveillance leave him disappointed in the Obama administration and, so far, in Americans' willingness to surrender their right to privacy.
"The younger generations are so used to putting everything about themselves out there that maybe they don't realize they're selling themselves out. I don't know whether they are desensitized to a loss of privacy, but they sure are reluctant about reacting," he said. But, maybe, this will wake people up, he said.
The revelations about the NSA's surveillance could indeed be a turning point in driving debate, Lyon said. But technology is so pervasive and those doing the surveillance so reluctant to share what they do, that the questions will take time to answer.
Richards, the Washington University professor, was reminded of a phone conversation a few years ago to a cousin in Britain who asked for his views on U.S. politics. Just as he was about to reply, Richards said, he took stock of the situation. A phone call across borders. A foreigner on one end of the line. Criticism of elected leaders. It seemed just the kind of conversation that might be picked up by a government computer. But there was no way to know - and so Richards said he decided he had no choice but to keep his mouth shut.
"It's a symptom of the times we're living in and the choices we're going to have to make ... one way or the other," he said. "We don't accept total surveillance in the name of crime prevention and I think people are coming to reject total surveillance in the name of terrorism prevention."
"But it's hard to reject surveillance if you don't know it's there."