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”.
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.
If 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.