The year I moved to Brooklyn happened to be a big year for bombings and terrorist threats in NYC. There were two attempted car bombings of Times Square that year, a Starbucks bombing on the Upper East Side, and—of course—our much beloved Underwear Bomber, who didn’t fly out of New York, but I was terrified nonetheless, since I was flying back to California a lot. So, at that time, my take on government surveillance in the interests of preventing terrorist attacks was something akin to: “yeah, let’s get this shit hammered out.”
That’s more or less how most of the country feels, according to a Pew report released late Monday. The survey revealed that a full 56% of American adults believe that the NSA’s tracking of phone records is an acceptable way for the government to prevent terrorist attacks.
Interestingly, no one is really indecisive about this. While 56% of Americans believe the tracking is acceptable, a full 41% believe it is unacceptable. Only 2% remain unsure.
Naturally, young people are less convinced of the necessity of such surveillance. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, a full 45% of respondents believe it is more important for the federal government NOT to intrude on privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. By comparison, 35% of 30- to 49-year-olds hold the same convictions, while only 28% of 50- to 68-year-olds believe privacy to be more important than terrorism investigations.
In another interesting twist, while a full three out of four Republicans used to be in full support of NSA surveillance programs compared to just 37% of Democrats back in 2006, now those numbers have more or less switched. Today, 52% of Republicans say NSA surveillance programs are unacceptable, compared to 64% of Democrats.
To be fair, the surveillance programs under the Bush administration were different from those employed under the Obama administration. In 2006, it came to light that the NSA was tracking individuals suspected of having ties to terrorist operations by secretly listening in on their phone calls and reading their emails without court approval. Under Obama, the NSA has been getting secret court orders to track the call patterns of…everyone, basically. So less intrusive, but wider in scope.
While I was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of secret, illegal wiretapping and email surveillance in 2006, I’m not terribly uncomfortable with the idea of the feds tracking who I’m calling on my Verizon family plan. But then again, I’m not a Muslim American likely to be a target of racial profiling.
Ultimately, what’s wrong with the NSA’s surveillance of phone records and its PRISM program isn’t necessarily that it’s keeping tabs on everyone—that’s to be expected when there are loonies here and abroad who want to kill lots of people to make a point, and new technology is making that easier than ever. It’s that the public has no say in it. Nor do we really know the full scope or breadth of the surveillance. The PRISM program is said to have involved companies ranging from Facebook and Apple to Yahoo and Dropbox—all of whom deny involvement in the program.
President Obama has said that surveillance of emails and the Internet in general has only applied to those living outside of the U.S.
Overall, the problem with this situation is the lack of information. The American people can’t form an informed opinion or have an informed discussion about the issue if they don’t have the information.
Image source: ourtowntustin