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Are They Fools? Public Acceptance of Digital Surveillance

The other day we noted a Pew poll which indicated that a majority of Americans was comfortable with the recently-revealed NSA surveillance program as long as it kept them safe–an outlook we attributed to a Jacksonian mindset. Well, it turns out that the attitude may not be quite so quintessentially American after all. Buried in a New York Times article about the loud public outcry among some Europeans over the NSA revelations are the results of a recent German poll.

According to a poll in the newspaper Die Zeit, about 40 percent of Germans think that governments are right to monitor Internet communications for security reasons. And nearly half say they want to keep using services by American companies like Google, Facebook and Skype for communication and do not feel monitored.

This is well-short of the 56% majority support that this kind of government action commands in the US, but it’s a fairly sizable chunk of the population nonetheless. And concerns about a foreign power doing the snooping probably negatively influenced more respondents on the margins, so the polls might be even closer than the top-line figures indicate.

So what’s behind these attitudes, then? A fair bit of common sense, we think. David Simon, the creator of HBO’s series The Wire, put it best as this story started to break last week (h/t alert reader WigWag):

There is a lot of authoritarian overreach in American society, both from the drug war and the war on terror.

But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. […]

We asked for this. We did so because we measured the reach and possible overreach of law enforcement against the risks of terrorism and made a conscious choice.

Simon was writing before a fuller account of the NSA program was revealed, and he goes on to argue in the comments that the PRISM program is potentially more troubling than he initially thought. But his core insight is correct: the security challenges we face are real, and many regular people have consciously decided that some manner of trade-off between privacy and security is worth it. These people shouldn’t be cavalierly dismissed.

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  • Andrew Allison

    I have a quite different take. Of course we agreed that increased surveillance was needed after 9/11. The problem is, as noted at, that the government, as governments will, has interpreted the enabling legislation in ways it was never intended to be. For example, what was authorized was surveillance of non-US citizens but what we have is surveillance of US citizens who place international calls or visit foreign websites. The obfuscation (to put it kindly) of the Administration suggests that, like the IRS, the security apparatus is over-reaching. As information dribbles out about the full extent off the spying on US citizens by their own government, I expect the attitude of the public to change.

  • Fat_Man

    Depends on your polling organization:

    “57% Fear Government Will Use NSA Data to Harass Political Opponents”

    “There is little public support for the sweeping and unaccountable nature of the NSA surveillance program along with concerns about how the data will be used.

    “Fifty-seven percent (57%) of voters nationwide believe it is likely the NSA data will be used by other government agencies to harass political opponents. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that just 30% consider it unlikely and 14% are not sure.

    “33% approve of the NSA program to fight terrorism while 50% are opposed.

    “26% now believe it is necessary to collect data on millions of ordinary Americans to fight terrorism. Sixty-four percent (64%) believe it would be better to narrow the program so that it monitors only those with ties to terrorists or suspected terrorists.

    “Seventy-four percent (74%) believe the government should be required to show a judge the need for monitoring the calls of specific Americans.”

  • Fat_Man

    I think that the proponents of the NSA program need to explain to the American people, what is being done and why. If they believe that they doing it to prevent terrorism, they need to show these programs are adapted to preventing terrorism and minimizing the damage to privacy and civil liberty.

    One problem that they have doing this is that the President has made recent speeches claiming that the war against terror is almost over and that Congress should repeal the Authorization to use force. That does not sound like a justification for the NSAs program.

  • jeburke

    I think the polling numbers are a superficial reaction to extraordinarily misleading reportage, beginning with the initial Post and Guardian stories with their glaring “direct from servers” error and featuring constant fear-mongering hype. With the legal and operational safeguards put in place governing NSA and FBI surveillance activities in recent years, American internet users concerned about privacy have far, far more to fear from hackers, identity thieves, employers, suspicious spouses and commercially driven data mining than from the government. I’ve been telling colleagues, relatives and friends for years never to put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to display on your front lawn.

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