Majority Of Americans Okay With NSA Dragnet… Or, Wait, Not Okay With It; Depending On How You Ask

from the i'm-not-angry;-i'm-disappointed dept

Results of a recent survey have just been released by the Pew Research Center and its discoveries are a bit surprising and a bit disappointing. After seeing a large surge in the percentage of people who were unwilling to sacrifice more civil liberties to fight terrorism (last month’s post-Boston Bombing TIME/CNN poll), today’s poll release swings back in the other direction. According to Pew’s poll, a majority of Americans think the NSA’s phone records dragnet is perfectly fine in the context of fighting terrorism.

A majority of Americans – 56% – say the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority – 41% – say it is unacceptable. And while the public is more evenly divided over the government’s monitoring of email and other online activities to prevent possible terrorism, these views are largely unchanged since 2002, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Just 34% say it is more important for the government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

While it’s tempting to believe a large number of Americans simply haven’t been paying attention for the last 11 years, the more probable explanation for the consistent support of government monitoring is the hypocrisy of partisan politics. Republicans and Democrats have shown their support of government surveillance is directly tied to whoever’s currently in the White House.

Republicans and Democrats have had very different views of the two operations. Today, only about half of Republicans (52%) say it is acceptable for the NSA to obtain court orders to track phone call records of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism. In January 2006, fully 75% of Republicans said it was acceptable for the NSA to investigate suspected terrorists by listing in on phone calls and reading emails without court approval.

Democrats now view the NSA’s phone surveillance as acceptable by 64% to 34%. In January 2006, by a similar margin (61% to 36%), Democrats said it was unacceptable for the NSA to scrutinize phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists.

There, in bold black and white, is one of the most damning indictments of the two party system and its attendant illusion of choice. Two different parties in control. Same outcome. The only thing that changes is the party affiliation of the indignant. Oddly, “Independents” have increased their support of surveillance programs over the same period, a stat that serves as a reminder that it’s not just libertarians self-identifying as independent.

On a slightly more positive note, Americans are more protective of their internet usage, with a slight majority (52%) saying the government should not be allowed to monitor email and “other internet activities” in order to track down terrorists. Sadly, this too can probably be chalked up to a change in presidents, with Republicans jumping 13% in their disapproval from 2006 to 2013 and Democrats dropping their disapproval 8% over the same period.

But perhaps the largest factor is the phrasing of the questions. A Rasmussen poll conducted during the same period came to nearly the completely opposite conclusion.

Most voters oppose the U.S. government’s secret collection of the phone records of millions of Americans and think the feds are spying too much on U.S. citizens these days. Just 26% of Likely U.S. Voters favor the government’s secret collecting of these phone records for national security purposes regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 59% are opposed to the practice.

It appears as though certain words — like “terrorism” — tend to trigger more supportive answers.

Here’s the question asked by Pew Research:

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

Here’s Rasmussen’s version:

The federal government has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans for national security purposes regardless of whether there is any suspicion of wrongdoing. Do you favor or oppose the government’s secret collecting of these phone records?

Both questions have their own tilt. Pew uses the word “terrorism,” which tends to provoke stronger emotional responses. It also gives the NSA’s action an overarching purpose where Rasmussen’s wording places more emphasis on secrecy and the lack of reasonable suspicion inherent in the NSA’s data harvesting. Rasmussen skews things even further in other questions, including this one, which presents only one “correct” answer (logically).

Is the U.S. government spying too much on Americans these days, not enough or is the level of spying about right?

Where does the public’s opinion actually lie? It’s tough to say as both polls use language which could skew results. A certain percentage of Americans are willing to accept rights erosion in exchange for fighting terrorism. Legislators still exploit this angle to push through questionable bills and excuse existing policies. Rasmussen’s question exchanges “terrorism” for “national security,” a term that doesn’t have nearly the same emotional impact. Two very different outcomes to ostensibly the same question.

Pew’s more thorough poll does alert us to the fact that a majority of the population is either ambivalent to the NSA’s actions — or completely unaware. Only 27% of respondents claim to be following the story closely, with those polling as opposed to the NSA’s data harvesting holding a slight lead over those who support these efforts. This low level of engagement isn’t uncommon and has helped to ensure that questionable Bush-era policies remain in place years down the road, in some cases being expanded by the current administration. Hopefully, this latest round of leaks will grab the attention of more of the population and bring with it some much-needed transparency and change within the system.

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Companies: pew research center, rasmussen

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Comments on “Majority Of Americans Okay With NSA Dragnet… Or, Wait, Not Okay With It; Depending On How You Ask”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“A majority of Americans ? 56% ? say the National Security Agency?s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism…”

“… Currently 62% say it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy…

Golly! It’s right there in black and white: something like 118% of Americans are stoopid. Dunno how that works. I’m so embarrassed to be one o’ them!

Polls are so enlightening!

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re: Re:

Exactly. All polls are BS. They can skew the numbers to refect their own views. I don’t put my trust in their bogus figues. Besides, were you or I polled? No, of course not, so when they say things like “67% of Americans,” they’re being intellectually dishonest. It should read, “67% of a small group of people, after we’ve taken liberty with the figures.” Remember the mysterious ‘90% of Americans in favor of gun control’ the media fabricated? Yeah, exactly.

Like hell 2/3rds of Americans are okay with what the government is doing. Most people I’ve seen commenting about the NSA leaks are pissed off about it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Regardless of what the polls say, your country is at crossroads: if you let this slide without consequence, you will open the door for for more invasive espionage and more government control over your lives.

You can try to rationalize it by saying that it will make you safer. The truth is that it won’t (history will back me up on this one, just check it). You will be sacrificing the liberties that your forefathers fought and died for and will gain absolutely nothing in return.

Don’t let them wipe their asses with your constitution. Fight for your rights!

…or don’t. Maybe I am just an idiot. You are free to choose not to be free…so do what you want…

Loki says:

Re: Re:

The problem is partially the polls (or more accurately the people willing to take the polls in most cases), are still continuing to frame the arguments as an US vs THEM (as a Democrat vs Republican rather than a commoner vs Elite) thing to keep people polarized.

You’ve got “left” leaning media pointing out how Fox flip-flopped on the issues (going so far in 2006 as trying to rebrand the phrase “warrentless wiretapping” as “terrorist surveillance program” but now calling out Obama for “gigantic overreach”) while totally ignoring the fact that people like Dianne Feinstein were all opposed to these laws when Bush was in office but now everything is hunky-dorry for Obama because we have these laws that make it OK.

And naturally the “right” is having a grand old time doing just the opposite and gladly pointing out Feinstein and Co. flip-flopping, but not Fox’s.

So people who rely on these people for to help form their opinions (you’ll rarely see conservatives watching MSNBC or liberals watching Fox) rarely get a wider view of how both sides are increasingly screwing everybody. And the polls clearly reflect that (hell just look at the stat that only 27% of the people said they are closely following this story).

Pixelation says:

Re: Re:

“I despise it, but I don’t think it is unconstitutional… “

I do think it is unconstitutional. To me this is like taking finger prints or DNA samples from every American and saying it is okay as long as they don’t use them without a good reason. The big issue is that the government loves to abuse the system as we are finding out again and again.

Anonymous Coward says:

Part of why more independents support it under Obama then Bush is that Bush was far more unpopular in 2006 when that earlier poll was done, then Obama is now in 2013. Obama’s numbers have gone down lately, but he’s not the kind of radioactive poison that Bush had become, yet anyway, 2013 is only 5 years in, 2006 was 6 years in for Bush.

Jason says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s called auditory typing.

Rather than visualizing what they type, a LOT of people process words by an auditory thought process when typing.

Since Americans tend toward a loose schwa for both then and than, it’s common for them to intend the one and then having heard it in their thoughts they end up typing the other.

The notion that we don’t know the difference is based on a poor understanding of the process and an unfortunate lack of appreciation for our laid back approach to language.

But than, whatever.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Here's the sad part.

I was having a chat with some of my associates yesterday. Both of them fall into the older demographic surveyed by the Pew research center, and both agreed that the NSA should be able to monitor phone metadata. When I pointed out that based on the poll results, the younger demographic was more in favor having the government keeping its nose out of their business national security or not, one of them looked at me and said, “And how old were they when 9/11 happened?”


National security reasons or not, I’d like a little more oversight in my government, especially when it concerns the NSA, who before 9/11 were known as “No Such Agency”. The other agencies constantly denied the existence of the NSA’s giant Maryland facility, even though it had a road sign on the high way pointed to where it was located, with the added bit of “NSA Employees Only”.

They wonder why people are so suspicious about what the NSA does. That whole “you’ve nothing to fear if you’ve got nothing to hide” thing is a two-way street.

Anonymous Coward says:

Its definitely going to cost Murica I would think. I for one cant possibly keep personal data in US clouds or servers anymore. I am sure a lot of people are in the same boat.

Have moved to a country that actually respects privacy a tad and doesn’t use the phrase “because terrorism” to defend every absurd decision they make.

Rick Smith (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So you can guarantee that the data does not make its way to the cloud via any server located within the US? Because that is the only chance (and notice I said chance) that your data is not recorded. And even then, who can really say that the US Intelligence community hasn’t been able to convince foreign companies to allow this, or used some of that ‘cyber-warfare’ that the US politicians keep harping on to infiltrate servers in other countries.

I’m sorry to say, the only way to be sure not to have your data copied at this point is to abstain from Internet usage.

Anonymous Coward says:

Which Polls Fared Best (and Worst) in the 2012 Presidential Race

Reposting from previous article, with additional info.

?Which Polls Fared Best (and Worst) in the 2012 Presidential Race?, by Nate Silver, New York Times: FiveThirtyEight, November 2012

For the second consecutive election ? the same was true in 2010 ? Rasmussen Reports polls had a statistical bias toward Republicans, overestimating Mr. Romney?s performance by about four percentage points, on average.

Note the second table in Silver’s article, comparing “Likely Voters Polls in Last 21 Days of Campaign”:

? ? In 2(*) Pew Research polls, there’s a 1.5 average error and a R +1.1 bias.

(*) With respect to the two Pew Research polls, Silver notes:

One should probably not read too much into the results for the individual firms that issued just one or two polls, which is not a sufficient sample size to measure reliability.

? ? In 60 Rasmussen Reports polls, there’s a 4.2 average error and a R +3.7 bias

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Investigate, YES, get a warrent!

“A majority of Americans ? 56% ? say the National Security Agency?s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism”

Yet another way the question is targeted is that it ignores the way this program is justified. Secret interpretations of secret laws and non-specific warrants.

My understanding is that Law Enforcement may initiate monitoring of XYZ anytime, and apply for the warrant within 24 hours. So there is NOTHING preventing them from doing their jobs, and remain within the 4th Amendment.

They should ask, “Do you want violent crime investigated so badly that it is OK to violate the constitution, or would doing so within the constitution be as effective?”.

This has its own issues, but seems a better question to me. Oh, and the secret laws that we are liable for?????????

Malibu Cusser (profile) says:

As soon as someone mentions ‘terrorism’, everyone seems to forget that this program isn’t about collecting data on people with suspected ties to terrorists. They are collecting data on EVERYONE, regardless of your affiliation. EVERYONE. How exactly can people still think this is about catching terrorists?!

There is nothing that would prevent them from strictly targeting the right group of people IF this was really about terrorism. Why hasn’t any ‘journalist’ asked the people trotting out terrorism the simple question: “Why is data being collected on everyone, instead of only people with suspected terrorism ties?” After all, isn’t that allegedly what those laws were supposed to be about?

Anonymous Coward says:

Ah...the confusion

This article (and all previous) talk about “Telephone Conversations”. I see a weasel word here:

Telephone, as I understand it, relates to POTS (plain old telephone system) lines. Cell phones are different. they don’t travel on the POTS – they travel Internet. Your voice/audio gets translated to digital, and then encoded, and broadcast as a series of bits and bytes to the other end … VIA the Internet.

So, my confusion is … are Cell Phone conversations NOT being recorded? they are not Telephone conversations. And would this light change the results of the survey? if we discovered that they were recording all internet traffic, including cellphone content traffic?

out_of_the_blue says:


Has all the signs:
) Well-off insider with some Powerpoint slides as proof SAYS all the things we want to hear:
) Of what anyone paying attention already knew:
) Positioning of Google and other conspirators who deliver the info as opposed to it and only reluctantly going along:
) But then as Mike trotted out yesterday, it’s really not as bad as claimed…
) And diversion with “opposing” members of the criminal gang giving the usual variety of comforting answers, Dianne Feinstein and Mike Rogers both finding an accord that it’s necessary and desirable…
) Until we get to the mandatory public opinion polls, and turns out, why, most people think it’s just great!

Textbook example of the way machinery of gov’t tyranny works. This isn’t surprising.

Anonymous Coward says:

Make it personal, then see what they answer

Instead of asking whether it’s OK for the government to conduct surveillance in order to combat terrorism, ask whether it’s OK for the government to read all your emails, view all your social network posts, keep a list of all the people you call, all because you might be a terrorist.

Fighting terrorism makes surveillance seem distant and heroic: they’re not after you, they are after terrorists. In truth, it’s a lot more personal than that.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Re: Make it personal, then see what they answer

Yes and no. Some cell companies can connect to the Internet, but that just lets the phone connect to the regular phone network threw a WiFi endpoint. All calls made threw Verizon (and probably all others) connect to the same system and are being monitored in the same way as land lines.

rww says:

Dollars & Sense

I would be willing to bet that if the poll takers were to first mention the cost of these dragnets in annual budgeted dollars – first – they would get a totally different answer. At least – I hope so.

Poll taker: Considering it cost tax payers over $10 Billion dollars (or $575 Billion – depending on what portion of the Intelligence Budget you want to consider) annually, is it okay for the NSA to record your data and retain it for future investigations to thwart terrorism and child pornography even if the evidence can’t be used directly in a court of law?

Respondent: Um, no, I guess not.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Statistics and Lies

Saw this earlier today, checked it out.

First: the numbers-1,004 people polled.

Majority were from Washington, DC, where both WaPo and Pew are located.

“The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, conducted June 6-9 among 1,004 adults,
finds no indications that last week’s revelations of the
government’s collection of phone records and internet data
have altered fundamental public views about the tradeoff
between investigating possible terrorism and protecting
personal privacy.”

Think about this: would you vote against your own job?

In other words, it’s about what the people who are doing the spying think about their own jobs..and of course they’re going to support it!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Statistics and Lies

Majority were from Washington, DC

Can you provide a source for that assertion?

Because I’m seeing, on page 2:

About the Survey

? among a national sample of 1,004 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States ?

? weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and region to parameters? ?The sample also is weighted to? ?The weighting procedure also accounts for? Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting.?

So I’m seeing the Pew Survey claiming a “national sample”. I’m reading “continental United States” to exclude Hawaii().

() Maybe Alaska too. Yes, kiddies, Alaska is on the North American continent, but a lot people never even heard the word “contiguous”.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Re:Statistics and Lies

So I was wrong about the methodology..but the numbers?

How can you base the assumption that the majority of Americans approve of this when you’re only working with 1,004 people?

Last time I checked there were more than 316,024,000 people in this country-some of them adults.

I call bullshit, and deliberately skewing the facts to fit the agenda of the powers that be-the NSA, CIA and the Congress to get us to become more docile and accepting of their illegal activities.

Of course it’s splashed all over the media; just to make sure nobody complains that we are actually upset over this.

“See, you’re wrong to get all crazy about our illegal spying and metadata’s in your best interests! Please stop being so crazy!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Sad people would even consider giving up their rights to fight terrorism.

Maybe the question posed to the public should be “Are you happy that the NSA is receiving information about every American in an attempt to stop terrorist attacks when you are 8 times more likely to die from a police officer than a terrorist?”


Ben (profile) says:

It is about ideals

The problem, as I see it, is that the “public” (meaning most of the people hearing about this issue) don’t understand what can be done with metadata.

Take, for instance, the case of Target identifying (correctly) a teenage girl as being pregnant before her father knew. Slate provides a wonderful article on using metadata to find Paul Revere (oh! if the British had the techniques back then!).

Metadata can tell you more about someone than the actual content of the message; it documents the connections to other data that provides a feedback to the original point of interest (be it a person, or event; choose your poison).

It can be used to find out if someone is having an affair, or doing drugs, or is “socially unacceptable” by some other metric (the traditional blackmail category would be homosexuality, but that may be losing it’s hold these days). With blackmail comes power, and that power is held by people who have virtually no accountability.

FISA Court? It has rejected 0.03% of all requests (since 1978! none in the last year!) which is functionally equivalenmt to being a rubber stamp. The “F” in FISA stands for FOREIGN: what part of “Foreign” covers acquiring information on every Verizon customer in the USA (let alone the other companies)?

Add to that the Judicial Branch’s trend to defer to the Executive Branch when they pull out the “But Secret!” card. See US v. Reynolds where the US pulls the “State Secrets Priviledge” to avoid showing documents for a plane crash, when it was later shown (50 years later!) there were no secrets involved at all; to paraphrase Monty Python, It was that other thing: a lie.

I cannot even begin to verbalize how outraged I am about this fiasco, from Bush’s TIA to this current incarnation (same thing, just different labels). Al Qaeda was spectacularly successful in 2001, not in killing people or destroying property, but in redefining the ideals that the United States represents.

Jason says:

Re: It is about ideals


And what is the nature of those requests. Are they very specifically defined requests based on a carefully charted chain of reasonable suspicion (DAMN, I hate having to write that instead of probable cause), or is the rubber stamp going to generic requests with blanks left open for the agent to fill in?

We don’t know. It’s all secret.

Anonymous Coward says:

This story just appeared as a minor paragraph in a major Swedish newspaper yesterday, simply “as relayed by TT”. (

Obviously, it was reported as gospel, with no mention of any other surveys, no fact checking, and a complete lack of critical thinking.

“56% of Americans support mass surveillance. Done.”

For the largest news agency in the nordic countries, that’s… abysmal. Especially coming from the people who claim that you shouldn’t trust blogs due to poor fact checking.

Uh-huh. The publishing business can bite me. You know, when someone vomits statistics in your general direction and it doesn’t seem to make sense – that’s probably because it doesn’t make sense and you should try to find out WHY – possibly by, oh I don’t know, looking at the damned survey questions? Instead they just eat up the “facts”, chew it some more and spit it back out at people. If anything needs proper fact checking – it’s statistics.

They should remember their Mark Twain:
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Sad face.

Anonymous Coward says:

CBS News Poll

?Most disapprove of gov’t phone snooping of ordinary Americans?, (polling analysis) by Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus, CBS News, June 11, 2013

Seventy-five percent of Americans approve of federal agencies collecting the phone records of people the government suspects of terrorist activity, but a 58 percent majority disapproves of this type of data collection in the case of ordinary Americans.

Federal Government Collecting Phone Records of Ordinary Americans

? ? Approve: 38% ????? ? Disapprove: 58%

Poll was conducted by telephone from June 9-10, 2013 among 1,015 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by Social Science Research Solutions of Media, PA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Gallup Poll

?Americans Disapprove of Government Surveillance Programs?, by Frank Newport, Gallup, June 12, 2013

PRINCETON, NJ — More Americans disapprove (53%) than approve (37%) of the federal government agency program that as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism obtained records from U.S. telephone and Internet companies to “compile telephone call logs and Internet communications.”


? ?? would you say you approve or disaprove of this government program??

? ? Approve: 37% ????? ? Dispprove: 53% ????? ? No Opinion: 10%

(National adults)

Anonymous Coward says:

Poll roundup

An article today in The Huffington Post collects and summarizes results from six polls, finding “Wide Variation in NSA Phone Records Polling”.

Besides rounding up three out of the four polls that have already been discussed here (skipping Rasmussen), the HuffPost article has results from three more polls by Fox News, HuffPost/YouGov and Reuters/Ipsos.

?NSA Leaks Poll Finds Americans Divided Over Edward Snowden’s Actions?, by Emily Swanson, Huffington Post, June 13, 2013

Fox News
? Acceptable action: 32% ????? ? Unacceptable and alarming: 62% ????? ? [Unsure:] 6%

HuffPost / YouGov
? Justified: 22% ????? ? Unnecessary: 55% ????? ? [Unsure:] 23%

? Mostly/completely acceptable: 19% ????? ? Few circumstances: 35% ????? ? Unacceptable: 37% ????? ? [Unsure:] 10%

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