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We meet law enforcement and counterterrorism officials who share Reyes' concerns. Most also say such tools, carefully regulated, are crucial to protecting the nation.

It seems there's also wide agreement on this: the USA Patriot Act is just one facet of the emerging surveillance society. Some controversial parts of the law expire this year unless Congress votes to extend them - including sections allowing easier access to hotel and bookstore and other business records.

"If the Patriot Act were to completely go away," says Privacy activist James Dempsey, "All of these issues - consolidation of information, sharing of information, the power of the technology - ... would still remain, and the trends would continue unabated."

Dempsey points out the government can now get most of the information it would want about almost any adult in America by simply buying it from a company like ChoicePoint, Acxiom or Lexis-Nexis.

"The notion that the government has to go out and use legal powers to build some massive surveillance capability, or some massive data collection capability," says Dempsey, "that's so 20th century."

That's in part because the data industry has actively, and rather successfully, opposed strict government regulations. If you want to know what ChoicePoint or Acxiom or Lexis-Nexis is sharing with its corporate customers or the police about you, no law requires them to tell you.

By the end of our journey, one impression stands out: the rapidly expanding role of private-sector information companies in our society and our nation's security. It's not just privacy activists; in interviews, the same lawmakers, police and national security officials who say these tools are necessary, also express unease. On one trip to Washington, D.C., we visit two men: Viet Dinh, the former Justice Department official and a primary author of the Patriot Act, and Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a leading voice of dissent on the Patriot Act.

They disagree on the law, but both Leahy and Dinh say they're troubled by the rapid marriage, since 9/11, between the government and the data industry.

"I think if the Congress had the courage to hold real hearings and show where these links are," says Leahy, "I think the American public would rise up in arms and say, 'Change what you're doing.'"

"In a democratic government we should always distrust governmental authority," says Dinh. "The amount of information that is publicly available to businesses about any individual is mind-boggling. I am not comfortable that we are where we need to be in order to ... circumscribe governmental use of private intelligence. The government alone can jail us, can investigate us, and can deprive us of life and liberty."

But the threat and fear of terrorism persist. And companies that gather and analyze so many electronic details about us are becoming indispensable to police and intelligence agencies.

So these extraordinary changes seem almost sure to gain momentum, driven by this idea: that with enough information about everybody, authorities can discern the many innocent from the few who would destroy us.

"One of the remarkable things about ideas," says John Poindexter, "is that once you surface an idea and it's a good idea, in the long term, there's very little that can be done to stop the idea."

The new relationships between government and the information industry present striking challenges for a society that cherishes personal autonomy. In just a few short years, data and surveillance technologies have raced far ahead of the nation's laws and understanding. What's taking shape is, in effect, a high-tech homeland security system, with key parts outsourced to the private sector. Some are calling it a security-industrial complex. The impact of these trends will be with us for many years. The discussion about where to draw the lines has just begun.

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