WASHINGTON - What can people do to protect their privacy from massive data-mining efforts by U.S. and other intelligence services? The answer is not much, short of going off the grid completely.
Reports in The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers last week allege that the government has been secretly accessing the phone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers, as well as online videos, emails, photos and other data collected by nine Internet service providers.
Privacy advocates say most consumers long ago swapped privacy for convenience, but few realize the degree to which their digital activities are being tracked.
The head of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union says Granite Staters who are outraged by such revelations should contact their elected representatives.
"We're talking about gathering information on millions of people throughout the country, and it could be their data that's being collected and tracked," said Devon Chaffee, executive director of NHCLU.
Based on her conversations with people in New Hampshire, Chaffee said, "I think a lot of people are pretty outraged and concerned about this type of broad, sweeping surveillance by the federal government that's collecting data on millions of individuals without cause, with no suspicion of wrongdoing."
"The type of information that's being collected is very personal, and in some cases it's very private," she said.
In an unscientific poll posted online at unionleader.com, 76 percent of the 243 respondents said that "personal privacy" is more important to them than "national security," while 24 percent value national security more. The survey was posted Friday evening, and results were collected about 7 p.m. Saturday.
Nearly 90 percent of respondents said they would be "bothered" or "very bothered" by the government accessing records of their phone or Internet activity.
Nearly half - 48 percent - of those who took the survey acknowledged they knew "very little" about the so-called PRISM program, while 28 percent knew "a lot" and 24 percent knew "nothing" about it.
Those who are concerned, Chaffee said, can also sign a petition the American Civil Liberties Union has posted on its website (aclu.org), calling on President Obama to put an immediate stop to "the unconstitutional spying on Americans revealed by the Verizon court order."
New Hampshire has a long history of protecting privacy rights, Chaffee said. She said Granite Staters should urge their congressional delegation "to engage in a thorough investigation, and a public investigation, of how this surveillance is being conducted and also what the legal implications are of the provisions that were used to authorize the surveillance order."
She noted such data collection by government agencies is particularly concerning because of the power the government has, and the potential for the kinds of abuses carried out during the civil rights era.
"I also think it's important for people to understand even in this information that they're gathering, they can discern things like what your political affiliations are, what your religion might be, what your medical issues might be. ... We have a right to expect a certain level of privacy and it's really threatened by this type of surveillance."
Chaffee also expressed concern about the "targeting" of whistleblowers who have leaked information to the press.
"We've crossed a digital Rubicon here; there's no going back," Chester said. "Big data is ruling our lives, and the big question is whether there will be any kind of limits here, protecting our consumer information and our democratic right to privacy."
Privacy policies for Google, Yahoo and other Internet service providers explicitly state that the companies collect users' data, such as names, email addresses, telephone numbers, credit cards, IP addresses, search queries, purchases, time and date of calls, duration of calls and physical locations.
The policies say that companies may use that information to send you targeted advertising or, if necessary, to comply with requests from government authorities.
Apple Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp., Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. denied Friday that they give the government direct access to their servers, saying that the companies provide user data only in accordance with the law.
"Our legal team reviews each and every request, and frequently pushes back when requests are overly broad or don't follow the correct process," Google's statement said. "Press reports that suggest that Google is providing open-ended access to our users' data are false, period."
People who are disinclined to believe such reassurances - or who just want to keep anyone from reading or listening to their personal communications - can install specialized "end-to-end" encryption software, which must be used by both parties involved in a conversation. It prevents intermediaries like email or instant messaging providers from reading or understanding those conversations, or giving others access to them.
"Privacy advocates have recommended this for a long time, but it's seen fairly little adoption as a fraction of online communications because it requires a bit more conscious effort by users," said Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.
(But 21st-century consumers aren't likely to toss their mobile devices or swear off Internet access in order to preserve their privacy. One in three consumers would rather give up TV than their smartphones, according to a 2012 survey by Google/Ipsos OTX MediaCT.
People should be able to use new technologies without giving up their rights, said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
"These tools are the way we live our lives now, and we shouldn't have to give up our electronic rights in order to enjoy them," Calabrese said.Even if consumers do take the time to read the fine print in Internet companies' privacy policies, most don't expect that spies will be peering at their every move when they sign on, he said.
The problem is that electronic communication privacy laws are woefully out of date, he said. They haven't been updated since 1986.
The ACLU also supports a bill to create a "Do Not Track" option online that would require consumers to give explicit permission before their personal information could be collected by websites or apps. Such legislation has stalled in Congress for years.
Rather than retreating to a cabin in the wilderness, swearing off smart phones and saving up for encryption software, consumers can protect their privacy through old-fashioned political action, Calabrese said.
"Sometimes the simple and the old answer is the best one: Call your congressman," he said. "You're a citizen, not just a consumer. If you think what the government is doing is wrong, let the government know."