Public More Wary of NSA Surveillance Than Pundits Claim

Based on a bevy of polls conducted in the wake of revelations that the NSA surveiled millions of ordinary Americans’ private communications, many have prematurely concluded public support or opposition to the government surveillance program (for instance here, here, and here). These polls are insufficient gauges for what Americans actually think for several reasons. First, slight wording differences result in majority support or opposition of the program as described in each particular survey question, as I’ve written about here. Second, the full extent of these government programs is not yet fully known; fully 76 percent of Americans think that we’ll find out the programs are “even bigger and more widespread than we know even now.” Third, most Americans are not even fully aware of the revealed information and its implications—according to a Time poll only 24 percent of Americans say they’ve been closely following the reports of the large-scale government surveillance program called PRISM.

The public’s view of the information leak and revelations about these programs is complicated, as Americans strike a delicate balance between security and privacy. For instance, a Time poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the “government should prosecute government officials and others who leak classified materials that might damage security efforts,” but 54 percent thought that Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the secret program, “did a good thing in informing the American public.” This is likely because only 30 percent, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, think these leaks will weaken U.S. security.

Examining the different poll wordings can still offer value, demonstrating how people’s opinions change when they learn different details of the program. For instance, the public distinguishes between tracking ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing and collecting records of those suspected of terrorist activity. Pew/Washington Post found 56 percent thought it was acceptable for the NSA to get “secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” However, a CBS/NYTimes poll distinguished between tracking phone records of ordinary Americans and those suspected of terrorist activity. In contrast to Pew, CBS/NYtimes found 58 percent disapprove of “federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans” but 75 percent approve of tracking “phone records of Americans that the government suspects of terrorist activity.” Americans continue to reveal their preference for targeted surveillance when 73 percent told a Rasmussen poll that the “government should be required to show a judge the reason for needing to monitor calls of any specific Americans” and 64 percent said “it is better to collect phone records only of people suspected of having terrorist connections.”

Survey data also suggests Americans distinguish between government tracking phone records and government monitoring the content of online activities. Although polls have found public support for tracking phone records to investigate terrorism, most Americans draw the line at government monitoring the content of Internet activity, such as emails and chats. For instance, Pew found 52 percent think the government should not be able to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities.” Likewise, when Gallup describing the government program as collecting phone records and Internet communications, 53 percent disapproved.

Surveys that assume away potential misuses and abuses of the data not surprisingly find greater support for government surveillance programs. For instance, A CNN/ORC poll, found 66 percent thought the Obama administration was “right” in gathering and analyzing data on Internet activities “involving people in other countries,” while assuring respondents that the “government reportedly does not target Internet usage by US citizens and if such data is collected it is kept under strict controls.” The validity of this later assertion, however, is actually at the crux of the debate for those critical of the surveillance program. In fact, according to the same CNN poll, nearly two-thirds believe the US government has collected and stored data about their personal phone and Internet activities. Moreover, Rasmussen found that 57 percent thought it was likely that government agencies would use the data collected to “harass political opponents.” The fact that the public’s reported support for the program jumps when survey-wording guarantees the collected data will not be abused suggests that part of the reason the public is wary of the program is the very potential for abuse. The public does not desire privacy for just privacy’s sake, rather the public fears loss of privacy because of the potential for misuse or abuse. Questions that assume away this possibility are entirely unenlightening.

In sum, these data suggest the public is wary of untargeted government surveillance of ordinary Americans, especially without a warrant. They are more tolerant of government tracking phone records; however, many draw the line at government monitoring the content of ordinary Americans’ Internet activity.

A version of this post also appeared on Reason.com