"PRIVATE" is a ringing word in the American vocabulary, whether it stands for a tangible line drawn against the world ("Private, Keep Out") or for an intangible circle surrounding the individual ("My private life is my own"). The privacy of a citizen's home and thoughts is the greatest distinction of a democracy from a totalitarian state, symbolized most vividly by the curtain on the voting booth.

The early Americans were so secure in their sense of privacy that they seldom gave it a thought—the Constitution does not contain the term. If anything, most felt...

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