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.