For the first time since 9/11, Americans are more concerned about the government invading their privacy than they are about terrorism.
That’s according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, which conducted the survey in light of revelations earlier this year that the federal government is collecting information about Americans’ telephone calls and Internet usage. President Obama says the gathering of the data – which he said includes phone numbers and call durations but not conversations – is necessary to defeat terrorism. Edward Snowden, the former contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked information about the program, says the government’s involvement is more involved than Obama and others are saying.
Pew found that self-identified Democrats, Republicans and Independents are concerned about the government’s reach. Asked what concerned them about the government’s anti-terrorism policies, 47 percent of adults say the government has “gone too far in restricting civil liberties,” while 35 percent say the policies have “not gone far enough” to protect the country. In 2010, Pew found the opposite: 58 percent saying the government had not gone far enough, 27 percent saying it had gone too far. The Snowden episode seems to have flipped Americans’ attitudes.
This year is the first time since 2004 – when Pew first asked the question – that more people expressed concern about civil liberties than terrorism. Concern in the new poll was expressed across the board, with a majority of Independents (52 percent) and a plurality of Democrats (42 percent) and Republicans (43 percent) saying they are more worried about an invasion of privacy.
Americans also aren’t buying the federal government’s explanation that only “metadata” is being examined to fight terrorism. For instance:
- 70 percent say they believe the government is using the data for purposes other than fighting terrorism. Only 22 percent believe the data is used only to fight terrorism.
- 63 percent believe the government is collecting what is being said in phone calls and emails.
- 56 percent say courts are not providing adequate limits on what is being collected.
Still, Americans’ attitudes are somewhat complex. Despite believing their privacy is being invaded, 50 percent of adults approve of the government’s data-collection program, while 44 percent oppose. A full 57 percent of Democrats support it, compared to 47 percent of Independents and 44 percent of Republicans who say the same. Only 34 percent of self-identified Tea Party Republicans support it (62 percent of them oppose it).
Young people are far more likely to say the government has crossed the line: 60 percent of 18-29-year-olds say the programs have gone too far in restricting civil liberties. Among those ages 30-49, a plurality of 48 percent say the same, and among the 50-64 age group, it’s 44 percent. Americans ages 65 and older, by a margin of 42-33 percent, say the programs have not gone far enough.
In June, Obama said the programs are targeting phone numbers, not conversations.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said then. “That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at the numbers and durations of calls. They’re not looking at names and they’re not looking at content, but sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to people that might engage in terrorism.”
Snowden told the Guardian newspaper, “I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal e-mail.”
In June, US Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D.-Calif.), warned during a C-SPAN appearance that Snowden’s revelations are just the “tip of the iceberg,” although she emphasized that everything that is being done is legal. She made the comment after attending an intelligence briefing.
But even if it is only metadata, it can still be quite revealing, says J. Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA employee.
“Aggregated metadata can be more revealing than content,” Wiebe told FoxNews. “It’s very important to realize that when an entity collects information about you that includes locations, bank transactions, credit card transactions, travel plans, EZPass on and off tollways; all of that that can be time-lined. To track you day to day to the point where people can get insight into your intentions and what you’re going to do next. It is difficult to get that from content unless you exploit.”
The Pew poll surveyed 1,480 adults July 17-21.