PRISM: 50% of Americans approve of NSA's internet spying program

Filed Under: Data loss, Featured, Law & order, Privacy

According to data from the Pew Research Center, 50% of Americans approve of their government’s collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts.

The research was conducted by Pew between July 17 - 21, just six weeks after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on PRISM - the US government's omnipresent internet spying initiative.

This apparent approval by a slim majority of Americans (50% approve and 44% disapprove) is all the more surprising given what else the survey has to tell us.

  • Only 18% believe that data collection is limited to metadata
  • 22% believe the program is limited to anti-terrorism
  • 30% believe courts provide adequate limits on what's collected

It seems that the American public doesn't believe what it has been told about PRISM by the government, nor that its citizens are adequately protected by their courts.

Indeed 63% believe that the NSA is logging the contents of emails and phone calls despite President Obama's insistence that "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls".

Perceptions of the Governments Data Collection Program

Perhaps most surprisingly, the program garners a 47% approval rate even amongst that very group of respondents who believe that the government is recording phone calls and emails.

In fact the program still has a 40% approval rating even amongst people who believe their own emails and phone calls have been logged.

The basic split between those who approve and those who don't was mirrored in the US Congress last week when the House of Representatives voted by a slim majority (50% vs 47%) to continue funding the NSA's internet dragnet.

I think that vote encapsulates the significance of these numbers. Whilst PRISM does not enjoy runaway support, the revelation of its existence, and all that its existence implies, simply has not energised people in the way many of us expected it would.

Lindsay MillsIf the TV and print media are any reflection of the public mood then Snowden's uncovering of a vast domestic surveillance grid is not nearly as significant as the international game of Where's Wally/Waldo that followed. Or the fact that his girlfriend is a pole dancer with a diverting range of self portraits.

Within the computer security community at least, there are signs of life.

At the same time as Pew was running its research, Joseph Bonneau became the inaugural recipient of the NSA's award for the Best Scientific Cybersecurity Paper for The science of guessing: analyzing an anonymized corpus of 70 million passwords.

Although he accepted the award, he also took the opportunity to say via his blog that he thought a free society is not compatible with the NSA in its current form.

A situation for which he gives the spooks a pass, laying the blame squarely at the feet of his nation's politicians.

...I’m ashamed we’ve let our politicians sneak the country down this path.

In accepting the award I don’t condone the NSA’s surveillance. Simply put, I don’t think a free society is compatible with an organisation like the NSA in its current form. Yet I’m glad I got the rare opportunity to visit with the NSA and I’m grateful for my hosts’ genuine hospitality ... It affirmed my feeling that America’s core problems are in Washington and not in Fort Meade.

The apparent ambivalence of the US public at large to the government's vast data collection effort, in spite of the obvious concerns about it, can perhaps be attributed in part to the extraordinary power that the threat of terrorism invokes.

The Pew Research Center's own research into survey wording showed that when internet surveillance was described as “part of anti-terrorism efforts” it garnered 9% more support than when this goal was not mentioned.

Whilst fighting terror is certainly a real and pressing task for government we can be sure that politicians have shown a willingness to use terror as a smokescreen in the past.

A concern that Justin Amash himself raised when introducing his bill to curtail NSA funding for PRISM:

They'll tell you that the government must violate the rights of the American people to protect us against those who hate our freedom.

Reassuringly there are also signs within the survey that invoking the threat of terrorism isn't a blank cheque.

Survey respondents were asked to say whether government anti-terror policies had 'not gone far enough to protect the country' or 'gone too far in restricting civil liberties'.

Pew has asked that question twelve times since 2004 and this was the first time that more people have expressed greater concern about civil liberties than security.

Govt Anti-Terror Policies

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21 Responses to PRISM: 50% of Americans approve of NSA's internet spying program

  1. Lisa Vaas · 452 days ago

    So interesting, the different ways to spin this research.

    You can draw various conclusions from the Pew research findings: That half of Americans approve (go, NSA, go, hurray!) or that, as the LA Times reported, "For the first time since Pew began asking that question in 2004, more Americans, 47%, said their greater concern was the threat to civil liberties, compared with 35% who worried the programs don't go far enough to protect the country." (Boo, NSA, Boo!).

    And thus we get the LA Times headline: "NSA faces backlash over collecting phone data".

    Pluck one of the data points out for a headline, or pluck the other one out, and you get entirely different flavored stories. Headlines are horribly simplistic. It's journalism's billboardish limitation.

    I know that railing against the strictures of headline writing is stating the obvious, but this news in particular can be spun in such opposite ways, the obvious rears its most exemplary face of duh.

    I don't know what headline I'd write for this contradictory research. Maybe "US citizens are as pliable as rubber on hot asphalt when you drop words like 'protect,' or 'terrorism' into a poll question"

    ?

    • markstockley · 452 days ago

      The PRC's own summary of their own research, having outlined the public's concerns over the scope and reach of the data collection, the lack of court powers to curtail it and rising concern for civil liberties was "...Nonetheless, the public’s bottom line on government anti-terrorism surveillance is narrowly positive."

      I'm not seeing a backlash; not in the survey data, not in Congress and not in the world.

  2. Andrew · 452 days ago

    I am not bothered by the fact that the American's are spying on their own people my objection is to the American's spying on the rest of us around the world and believe me they are. while on facebook I found several files in my operating system that had no relevance to my computer and these files proved hard to remove. I wonder what would happen if we as a country started to spy on the NSA with a similar program or even if we shut them down with a specific type of virus which we could do. How would they feel about it? I bet they would be most upset so why the hell do they do it to us?

    Most of us are normal people with no intentions of terrorism in mind, why should the many suffer because of the few... civil liberties are there for a reason and they need to be honored... As a UK citizen my freedoms are granted by the Crown and not by any Government.

    • Robbie · 452 days ago

      Andrew, that's all cute and stuff but somehow you got it totally wrong from the start. sorry.

  3. Isn't also a fact that 50% of Americans have a below average IQ?

  4. Lee · 452 days ago

    For all the folks who allegedly approve of the government spy program(s), just one more question: Does that mean you would also approve of your government opening and reading your snail mail, or posting a human being inside your house to listen in on your conversations, if it was done in the interest of national security?

  5. Jack · 452 days ago

    As this grows and the people understand how much is collected compared to the positive results, there will be a growing number of upset Americans. I have written our Legislature about the data collection problem for over two years, with no results. Maybe this will stimulate some legislation. Since he's releasing more information in the near future, this will grow along with discontent amongst Americans.

    I wish they would release how many lawmakers have been tagged, collected and stored, that would make a major knee jerk reaction that would probably shut them down.

    Jack

  6. Mark · 452 days ago

    Polls are also skewed by whom they choose to poll. Only one poll in the last presidential election was anywhere close to being accurate. I don't believe Pew's results Fully 90% of the people I know and have discussed this want heads to roll. That's conservatives and progressives with libertarians at nearly unanimous outrage.

    • markstockley · 452 days ago

      Information on who was polled is on page 12 of the report (first link in the article), it contains information on age ranges, geography, political affiliation and error rates.

  7. I'm going to bet that this 50% are also US Constitution illiterate. For those who would prefer NOT to be ignorant of their rights:

    The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution:

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    Benjamin Franklin direct quote:

    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

    • Wolf_Star · 452 days ago

      I would venture to say that the number is a lot higher than 50% who are ignorant of the U.S. Constitution.

      The problem is, that once we give up our freedoms, getting them back might be next to impossible without another revolution...against our own government. A frightening scenario at best, but given the level of education seems to be on a downward trend, it may well come to that some day.

      I blame mass media for pandering to the ignorant, and advertisers who cater to the dullards and Luddites who would rather people remain simply entertained than be educated. Just look at the stuff on Discovery Channel for example. Abysmal.

  8. Richard · 452 days ago

    "Or the fact that his girlfriend is a pole dancer with a diverting range of self portraits."

    This seems appropriate: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3061#comic

  9. A real life - Real world comment
    u know how illiegeal immigrants are well "illegal"
    but everyone knows if every illiegal was deported the entire economy would collapse
    well same here and same case ron paul seemed really really cool, but wasnt voted in
    because someone will always have these technology , in the world of nsa and spys, its better if u hold it then someone, theres things that the common man will never nor want to understand,
    if it werent for these things we would be floating in the ocean all blowed up or be like the bordor of palastine and isreal
    and thats why ron paul wasnt voted in, legal weed, no war... but well be floating in the ocean
    get it

  10. Zombinol · 451 days ago

    I understand that the research is reflecting US sentiments and yes its is informative, however, its all within a bubble that is cultivating a police state to be sanctioned by the people, I seem to remember this sort of stuff going on in the USSR and in NAZI Germany, Himmler's Protection Squadron comes to mind, have we forgotten how police states start.

    The USA does not have a functioning democracy if the NSA is allowed to spy on the people it serves.

    Also do not forget that the world is looking into the bubble and are increasingly troubled by what has taking hold.

  11. Randy · 451 days ago

    There is no fix for stupid. We are going towards a one world government and there's nothing we can do about it. Both parties are corrupt and most voters cannot think for themselves. Whoever tells the slickest lies wins every election.
    Does this make me a pessimist or a realist?

  12. Fred · 451 days ago

    Just a note - this survey was conducted on 1480 respondents over 4 days. Hardly a truly representative sample considering the US population is in excess of 400m people. Even if 75% of citizens don't match the qualifying criteria, that still leaves 100m eligible candidates. A sample of 1480 covers just 0,00148% of the target group.

    • markstockley · 451 days ago

      I think a sample size of 1,000 - 2,000 is fairly typical for an opinion poll.

      Surveying a very large number of people isn't necessary to get a reasonably accurate result - it's much more important that the group you sample is representative of the population at large (is a representative sample) in terms of things like age, sex and political affiliation.

      Page 12 of the report sets out the demographics of the people they surveyed, the corrections they make for imbalances in representation and the expected error rates on the numbers.

      I am not a mathematician but this is my understanding of how it works; the headline figure - 50% approving PRISM - is subject to +/- 3% error. Under normal conditions we can expect that figure to be correct (in a range between 47 and 53) 19 times out of 20.

      • Fred · 450 days ago

        Hmm.. I hear what you're saying and that logic would be reasonable if those 100m in the target group were homogenous. Middle class varies from state to state - it would have been more meaningful to take smaller samples from each state (matching the demographic) and then averaging out the results. Saying 1480 think the same as 100m because the maths suggests so does not take into account "human" factors that may varies over such a large population.

        In my humble opinion, the US public has been manipulated so successfully by politicians, that I fear that their opinion is really of no consequence any more.

  13. forridean · 451 days ago

    Put me in the camp of people who does not believe that the government is completely honest about the proPut me in the camp of people who does not believe that the government is completely honest about the program, but also approves of it.

    Honestly... read my email. Listen to my phone calls. I'm a boring guy; it is all I can do to pay attention to my own garbage. I don't blame them if they stop reading after a few messages.

    Really guys... are you terrorists? Are you worried about thought police? Do you think everything is a slippery slope? Do you honestly believe our elite have some ridiculously circuitous plot to turn us into North Korea? I doubt it -- Brittany Spears lives better than Kim Jong-un, and I think our oligarchy is smart enough to know that.

    Bottom line -- transparency cuts all directions. I have nothing to hide... why do you? Why does my government? I am more upset that they kept this secret than I am that they're doing it. I say monitor it all!gram, but also approves of it.

    • Fred · 450 days ago

      The entire point of privacy is being able to share what you want, when you want, with who you want. You may be comfortable sharing your intimate conversations with the NSA, having your children spied on by gaming consoles and giving up your human right to privacy - but I assure you, others are not. Especially considering that it's not just spying on US citizens but on 34 other sovereign nations. Where does the paranoia end?

      • forridean · 448 days ago

        I understand the meaning of privacy, indeed, I would contend that most people have a pretty good idea of what is and isn't private. When I'm in my home, with the doors closed, no guests, and no electronic recording devices on, I'm expect privacy.

        When I'm out at, say, my local shopping mall food court, having a conversation, I (and I suspect most people) do NOT regard that conversation as private. It may be a personal conversation, I may not want strangers to participate, but it is not "private" in the sense that I am free from the possibility of being overheard. Therefore I don't do things at the mall food court that I want to be private.

        The line is blurred with electronic devices in my home (or in my pocket). On Facebook, I don't think of the environment as inherently private. I don't post things on Facebook that are truly private. I don't feel that I am in privacy when I operate an xBox 360. I understand that companies, and possibly the government, are able to "overhear" my communications. If I want to keep something private, I don't put it on Facebook. It still seems like we're within the realm of common sense.

        Finally, consider the companies involved. Verizon already knows all the meta data. All of it. Facebook already knows all your likes and tastes. Microsoft already knows all about what games you like, etc. All of these private companies know this information, and use it to try and squeeze more money out of me. If my government also knows, why would I suddenly distrust them and regard all that data as "private"? Between those companies, who only have a profit motive, and the government, which is working FOR ME to keep me safe, who deserves trust? The people who want to profit from the data, or the people who use it for my benefit?

        I think the real problem here is that some people have an unreasonable and inconsistent view of what is and is not private, combined with a misapprehension of who is using the data for what purposes. If there's anything to be worried about, it would be the corporations, not the government -- who has the better track record of even considering what is good for people? You might not think the government has always done a good job at that, but they're the only party with your data that is even considering your best interests at all. Facebook? Not so much.

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About the author

Mark Stockley is the founder of independent web consultancy Compound Eye and he's interested in literally anything that makes websites better. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkStockley