April 2, 2001

Fear Of Online Crime

Americans support FBI interception of criminal suspects’ email and new laws to protect online privacy

(Washington, D.C., April 2) — Americans are deeply worried about criminal activity on the Internet, and their revulsion at child pornography is by far their biggest fear. Some 92% of Americans say they are concerned about child pornography on the Internet and 50% of Americans cite child porn as the single most heinous crime that takes place online.

In other areas, 87% of Americans say they are concerned about credit card theft online; 82% are concerned about how organized terrorists can wreak havoc with Internet tools; 80% fear that the Internet can be used to commit wide scale fraud; 78% fear hackers getting access to government computer networks; 76% fear hackers getting access to business networks; and 70% are anxious about criminals or pranksters sending out computer viruses that alter or wipe out personal computer files.

These concerns may be a factor in the public’s support of the right of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to intercept criminal suspects’ email. Some 54% of Americans approve of the idea of FBI monitoring of suspects’ email, while 34% disapprove. There is equal public support of the FBI monitoring of email, phone calls, and postal mail.

The overall public anxiety about online crime occurs at the same time that Americans express growing distrust of the government. Only 31% of Americans say they trust the government to do the right thing most of the time or all of the time. That figure is down from 41% in 1988.

So, it is perhaps not very surprising that while Americans express a willingness to let law enforcement agencies intercept suspects’ email, they also support the general idea that new laws should be written to cover how law enforcement agencies monitor email. Just 14% of Americans say the laws that relate to intercepting telephone calls are good enough to cover Internet communications. Fully 62% of Americans say new laws should be written to make sure that ordinary citizens’ privacy is protected from government agencies.

Among the relatively small number of Americans who have heard about the FBI’s email sniffing program called “Carnivore” or “DCS1000,” there is much more evenly divided opinion. Forty-five percent of people who have heard of it say Carnivore is good because it will allow the FBI a new way of tracking down criminals. Another 45% say Carnivore is bad because it could be used to read emails to and from ordinary citizens.

“Americans are searching for an Information Age answer to the age-old question of how to balance their yearning to be protected from criminals and their yearning to prevent government authorities from abusing their investigative powers,” says Susannah Fox, co-author of the report. “Fear of online crime compels many Americans to accept wiretaps as a necessary tool, but they instinctively want to make sure that there are safeguards that prevent unwarranted government snooping.”

The results cited here are based on a survey of 2,096 American adults that was conducted between February 1 and March 1. Some 1,198 of the respondents are Internet users.