Most Americans are OK with Government Surveillance, Says Poll

Most Americans are comfortable with the National Security Agency’s data mining program, and a sizable minority think the government should have more power to monitor communications. That’s the result of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, one that points to the trouble defenders of civil liberties will have rolling back the current surveillance apparatus.

56 percent of Americans said it would be appropriate for the government to monitor the phone records of American citizens, a number relatively unchanged from a 2002 poll. 41 percent said such monitoring would go too far. Additionally, 62 percent of Americans surveyed said that it was more important to err on the side of security, rather than privacy; only 34 percent disagreed.

The poll suggests that last week’s revelations about an NSA program that records and saves telephone and internet data have not changed people’s minds about the proper role of government monitoring. And this represents a challenge for civil libertarians like me, who have argued that government monitoring is unethical, and possibly unconstitutional.

Quite simply, most Americans are happy to trade some liberty for security.

The potential harms from the current NSA program are obvious. At present, the NSA saves data on personal communications of Americans and people around the world. This information includes who called whom, how long they talked, and where the phones were when the call was made.

Right now, those records are put onto a server, but are not immediately combed through — the NSA claims that it only looks at data if it gets a court order to do so. If you’ve called a number the NSA thinks might be connected to a terrorist, your data may be looked at; if not, it is supposed to sit on the server, gathering metaphorical dust until and unless the NSA thinks it’s important to look at it.

Unfortunately, even if the current regime has safeguards against a sweep of collected data, that data is still sitting there in the possession of the NSA. It would not be technically difficult for an unethical agent — or administration — to begin to look through that information without a warrant. They could use that information to find out details about your life — who you call, where you go, what you do on a daily basis. With the telephone and internet data the government is collecting, it would be simple to find out intimate details about almost every American.

This is dangerous — but it’s not obviously dangerous to most Americans. And as long as most Americans continue to be broadly supportive of massive government surveillance, politicians will have little incentive to add safeguards — especially when opponents can then demagogue politicians as “soft on terror.”

That doesn’t mean that all is lost. Believe it or not, the current NSA program is better than it was during the Bush Administration; back then, searches could be initiated on the say-so of the executive branch. Now the executive branch must go to a special court to get permission to snoop. , It’s not perfect — many criticize the FISA court for being effectively a rubber stamp, Still, the existence of the court makes it harder for a rogue administration to start sifting through personal data. The FISA court was strengthened despite American support of broad surveillance; it’s entirely possible to imagine stricter safeguards on the NSA’s access to collected data.

But while it’s possible to envision stricter safeguards on surveillance in the near-term, it’s unlikely that the program itself will go away. For that to happen, civil libertarians will have to demonstrate not just the existence of these programs, but why they are potentially more dangerous than the alternative. Simply shining light on the program is not enough; right now, most Americans will look into the spotlight, and like what they see.


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Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra2 years ago

Thank you Jeff, for Sharing this!

Most people are NOT okay with Illegal Wiretapping, by the Government!

Sharon R.
Sharon R.2 years ago

Personally, I think this is cutting into our privacy and could be a slippery slope to more governmental activity in our lives. Already certain problems leap to mind, i.e. what if you dial a wrong number and that person happens to be on the "watch list"? What if your kids decide to google "terrorist" and come up with a terrorist group site? Will you then be watched? People are taken aside at airports for simply having the same name as a terrorist (some of whom have quite common names like "Anderson" or "Smith"), will people also be pulled aside for their telephone and internet records?

Eric B.
eric b.2 years ago

No, if the terrorist want any information they know where to get it, about its at the NSA.
The whole issue becomes since anything the Government says is a lie and the US becomes a police state like the USSR.

No more than 200 terror threats were REALY foiled by this surveillance But at least it did give people jobs.

Now is that worth the (big brother is "Really watching now")times.
(OUR U.S constitutional rights are no more)!!!!!
"Its just a matter of trust" like the old soviet union the U.S complained about NBOW in the U.S.

Lona Goudswaard
Lona Goudswaard2 years ago

Oh, well. I suppose a lot of Americans are just glad to have a president that listens to his people, and not just his ;-)

Debbie Miller
Debbie false2 years ago

I am not ok with it, just for the record!

Doug G.
Doug G.2 years ago

Too many americans are far too ok with far too many things these days that are ruining this nation. One has to wonder if they will ever get a clue and see the abuses happening all around them.

Cani L.
Cani L.2 years ago

Count me among the ones NOT okay with this.

Barbara V.
Barbara V.2 years ago

Well then, "most Americans" are stupid. They don't know what they're giving in to. They're probably the ones who voted for the corrupt governmental monsters in office today. When they realize the mistake they've made, it'll be too late. The idea of the government spying on good, hardworking American citizens is downright insulting.

Walter G.
Walter g.2 years ago

Who really authored the stupid suspicious pole?

Lona Goudswaard
Lona Goudswaard2 years ago

Marc P. I tried to send you another green star, but I'm not allowed. You've just said it all.