March 16, 2015

Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden

Americans’ Views on Government Surveillance Programs

Most are familiar with U.S. surveillance programs

The vast majority of Americans in this survey say they have heard about the surveillance programs to collect information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of the government’s efforts to monitor terrorist activity. Overall, 31% have heard a lot about government surveillance of telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity, and another 56% have heard “a little.”

Men (37%) are more likely than women (26%) to have heard “a lot” about the NSA revelations. College graduates (40%) are also more likely than those who have a high school degree (25%) to have heard a lot about government surveillance. Both of these demographic trends echo findings from the first survey in this series. However, when considering other demographics, this issue was likely to be familiar to many Americans in comparable numbers.

Many of the questions in this survey about behavior change were asked of the 87% of respondents who said they were aware of the programs and an analysis of their answers is in the section following this one.

Americans are divided in their concerns about government surveillance of digital communications

In this survey, 17% of Americans said they are “very concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communication; 35% say they are “somewhat concerned”; 33% say they are “not very concerned” and 13% say they are “not at all” concerned about the surveillance. Those who are more likely than others to say they are very concerned include those who say they have heard a lot about the surveillance efforts (34% express strong concern) and men (21% are very concerned).

When asked about more specific points of concern over their own communications and online activities, respondents expressed somewhat lower levels of concern about electronic surveillance in various parts of their digital lives:

  • Americans Have More Muted Concerns about Government Monitoring of their Own Digital Behavior39% say they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on search engines.
  • 38% say they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government monitoring of their activity on their email messages.
  • 37% express concern about government monitoring of their activity on their cell phone.
  • 31% are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter.
  • 29% say they are concerned about government monitoring of their activity on their mobile apps.

In addition, notable numbers of respondents said that some of these questions were not applicable to them.

In general, men are more likely than women to say that they are “very concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications (21% vs. 12%). Men are also more likely than women to be “very concerned” about surveillance over their own activities on mobile apps and search engines.

When asked to elaborate on their concerns, many survey respondents were critical of the programs, frequently referring to privacy concerns and their personal rights.

Q: Could you please explain briefly why you have this level of concern about government surveillance of Americans’ personal data and electronic communications?

“Every citizen should have the right to their own privacy inside there [sic] own homes and who they talk with. I feel this gives the government too much control.”
“The fourth [amendment] originally enforced the idea that each man’s home is his castle, secure from unreasonable search and seizure by the government.”
“What happened to privacy?”

At the same time, others suggested that the programs could be helpful for prevention of criminal activity and terrorism, and they are not personally concerned because they have “nothing to hide”:

“Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide and should not be concerned.”
“I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”
“Small price to pay for maintaining our safe environment from terrorist activities.”

References to “terror” or “terrorism” also appeared in many of the open-ended responses, and others pointed to conflicts between personal privacy, individual rights, and national security:

“If in the event I do something unacceptable to the government or country, they have the right to investigate me. Otherwise they are taking away my privacy as an American citizen.”
“Monitoring is okay for potential suspects but not every American.”

A majority say they are losing confidence that the public interest is being served by the surveillance programs

Those who are aware of the government surveillance programs say they are becoming increasingly skeptical of U.S. surveillance programs. The 87% of the respondents who say they have heard of the programs were asked, “As you have watched the developments in news stories about government monitoring programs over recent months, would you say that you have become more confident or less confident that the programs are serving the public interest?” Some 61% of these respondents said they were less confident and 37% said they were more confident.

Those more likely than others to say they are less confident include those very/somewhat concerned about government surveillance (80%) and those who have heard a lot about the surveillance programs (71%). In addition, those who say they are less confident include those who say they are very/somewhat concerned about government monitoring of their activities on social media, search engines, mobile apps, cell phones, and email.

Republicans and those leaning Republican are more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to say they are losing confidence (70% vs. 55%).

The public is evenly split about the capacity of the judicial system to balance privacy rights with intelligence agency and law enforcement needs

Many Americans are split on the effectiveness of the judicial system in balancing privacy and national security. Some 48% agree and 49% disagree when asked if they think “the courts and judges do a good job balancing the public’s right to privacy with the needs of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect information for investigations.”

Those who are more likely to say they agree the courts are striking an appropriate balance include: those who have heard only a little about the surveillance programs (56%), those who are not very/not at all concerned about the programs (63%), and those whose confidence in the surveillance programs has grown over time (83%).

However, there are no notable partisan differences on this question.

Americans are comfortable targeting others for surveillance, but not themselves

Those Who Have Heard a Lot about Surveillance Programs Are Less Likely to Support Monitoring OthersEven as they express some concern about the reach of government surveillance programs, majorities of Americans think such monitoring is acceptable in certain instances, as long as the targets are not average Americans. Those in positions of power are not seen as exempt; for instance, 60% of all adults say it is acceptable for the American government to monitor communications from America’s leaders. Here is the breakdown:

  • 82% say it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists
  • 60% believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.
  • 60% think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders
  • 54% say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens

At the same time, only a minority of Americans — 40% — feel it is acceptable to monitor ordinary American citizens. Some 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor their communications.

There are several consistent patterns in people’s answers to these questions: Those who have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs are less likely than others to feel that monitoring others, including terrorists, is acceptable. Similarly, those who are concerned about the surveillance programs are less likely to feel that monitoring others is acceptable. And younger adults under the age of 50 are less likely than their elders to think monitoring others is acceptable.

Those Who Think the Judicial System is Doing a Good Job Balancing People’s Privacy Rights with Law Enforcement Needs Are More Likely to Support Monitoring OthersAt the same time, those who are more confident that the public interest is being served by these surveillance programs are also more likely to think it is acceptable to monitor others. And those who think the courts and judges are doing a good job balancing the interests of intelligence agencies and law enforcement are also more likely to support monitoring others.

Interestingly, there are no statistically meaningful partisan differences in answers to these questions about which kinds of individuals are acceptable to monitor.

Many think it is acceptable to monitor others in a variety of other situations

In specific circumstances, Americans also generally support the use of surveillance to investigate criminal activity, as well as circumstances when a person’s digital activity may cause some suspicion of potential involvement with terrorism or violent acts. These respondents are split on a number of causes for suspicion, including unusual bank withdrawals, the use of encryption to hide software, and situations where individuals are connected to social media users used hateful language about American leaders.

  • 77% of adults believe it is acceptable for the government to monitor communications of a U.S. citizen when the person has visited a child pornography website.
  • 68% believe it is okay to monitor someone who exchanged emails with an imam who preached against infidels.
  • 67% back the idea that the government can monitor a person has visited websites connected to known anti-American groups.
  • 65% believe it is acceptable to monitor a person who made search engine queries for keywords related to explosives and automatic weapons.
  • 51% support the idea of monitoring individuals reported by their bank for making unusual withdrawals.
  • 49% believe it is okay to monitor a person who used encryption software to hide files.
  • 49% think it is acceptable to monitor a person who had friends or followers on social media who used hateful language about American leaders.

Americans ages 50 and older were more likely than those in younger groups to say surveillance is acceptable across many of these specific scenarios. In addition, those who are not concerned about the surveillance programs are more likely to say that monitoring in these situations is acceptable. And those who are confident that surveillance programs are in the public interest are more likely than others to back monitoring people in all of these circumstances, as are those who think the judicial system is balancing the needs of law enforcement with people’s right to privacy.

Again, it is noteworthy that there are no partisan differences on these questions.