Privacy SOS

Poll shows public in Massachusetts has very little knowledge of empirical surveillance studies, but why?

A Boston Globe poll on Massachusetts residents’ perceptions of security, privacy, and surveillance policy in the wake of the Tsarnaev trial reveals widespread misconceptions about the relationship between government spying and public safety. The alarming results suggest that the public is consuming information about surveillance and security that bears very little relation to existing empirical evidence. More specifically, the findings show that the old style journalism format of 'he said, she said' reporting is not serving the public interest in the 21st century—if it ever did.

A whopping 82% of those polled in the Globe survey said they think “increased public surveillance and cameras” would be an effective tactic for stopping possible future terrorist attacks. The reality couldn’t be more different. Tens if not hundreds of private and public surveillance cameras lined the route of the Boston Marathon’s finish at Boylston street. The attacks and the perpetrators were captured on many, many cameras. The vast majority of the most horrific terrorist attacks of the past two decades, including the 9/11 attacks, took place not just in spite of near ubiquitous cameras, but often as a show for the cameras. There is zero empirical evidence to show that CCTV stops terrorism, and plenty to suggest that cameras aren’t even very effective at stopping crimes like robbery.

Perhaps it is because of similar misunderstandings of the basic facts that 58% of the Massachusetts residents interviewed for the 1,000 person poll said they were "willing to give up some personal freedom and privacy for the sake of national security." But even the premise of the question is incorrect.

Security and privacy are not opposing interests. Often the things that keep us the most secure—locks on our doors, fences around our yards—also protect our privacy. The type of dragnet, suspicionless surveillance referenced in the so-called ‘national security’ context does not protect public safety. Despite the government’s insistence that by giving up freedom we gain security, the empirical record shows that’s not true.

The NSA phone surveillance program, for example, hasn’t stopped one single terrorist attack in the decade plus of its existence. On the contrary, the Boston Marathon attack occurred not just under the noses of various police and security personnel (and cameras) at the finish line of the race, but during a time when the NSA and FBI’s post-9/11 surveillance programs were in full, secret swing—before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on them.

Worse still, those surveillance programs we are told will keep us safe in exchange for our freedom actively threaten our security. The Open Rights Group explains how warrantless surveillance directed at people suspected of no crime actually hurts people:

[F]or many people surveillance makes them less safe: it's not the security blanket politicians are holding it up to be. Job-seekers under surveillance can lose income needed to survive if their online activity fails to match up to job search demands. People interested in campaigning hestiate over getting involved with movements for social justice when the police count activism as akin to domestic terrorism.

It’s clear that surveillance affects a broad group of people, with real painful consequences for their lives. We’ve seen journalists being monitored, lawyers having their client confidentiality broken, victims of police misconduct being spied on and environmental campaigns infiltrated. These people are not criminals, and yet when we have a system of mass surveillance, they become targets for increasingly intrusive powers.

We also know that state surveillance stigmatises certain groups of the population, it targets communities and networks. Innocent people who share similarities with suspects, (similar Skype chat user names, nearby places of worship, physical location) fall under intense scrutiny, like having their private web cam chats examined. Mass surveillance disproportionally affects marginalized groups and fosters mistrust.

After 9/11, members of our society who benefit from fear-driven public policy have promoted the idea "that the attacks that cost the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans happened because federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies lacked enough information to uncover and prevent the attacks."

But as the Cato Institute’s Patrick G. Eddington writes,

That assumption was thoroughly refuted by the Congressional Joint Inquiry report and the 9/11 Commission report.…[Nevertheless, n]either report managed to derail the “collect it all” mindset during multiple reauthorization opportunities over the past decade. Emotion and propaganda triumphed over hard facts—a situation that persists to this day, in spite of all that Edward Snowden has revealed to us.

Despite the facts, the public still believes that giving up freedom will buy them security. How does "emotion and propaganda triumph" over the facts? In the face of huge quantities of evidence and common sense, eight out of ten people in Massachusetts think putting cameras on the street will deter terrorism. What could possibly account for this gap between empirical evidence and public sentiment?

He says, she says, but what about the evidence?

A New York Times video piece on the Measles scare and anti-vaccine advocates comes to mind when I think through answers to that question. In that video, a doctor excoriates journalists for covering the vaccine issue through the 'he said, she said' reporting format. In that style of journalism, people who claim that vaccines cause autism are given an equal platform to speak alongside scientists and researchers who have studied the question and come to the opposite conclusion.

In the ‘he said, she said’ reporting format, the government’s spokespersons can announce they are installing new surveillance cameras to protect public safety, and the only counterbalance in the story might be a quote from the ACLU. But there is actual evidence to be found, too. And that evidence says dragnet surveillance and CCTV don’t stop terrorist attacks. Those facts should be reported alongside the government’s and ACLU’s claims. It’s unacceptable for reporters to assume, for example, that readers have read thorough literature reviews of surveillance camera effectiveness studies when reporting on a police department's plan to put brand new cameras all over a metropolitan area. The ACLU says "What about privacy," and the cops say "This will protect your safety," but what about the evidence?

The Boston Globe poll on surveillance and privacy after Tsarnaev should serve as a wake up call to anyone who cares about media, justice, and open society. Not all opinions are created equal. Some things are demonstrably true, and other things are not. I for one would very much appreciate more empirical analysis in reports about government surveillance programs. (More reporting like this!)

Governments and other interested parties say untrue things all the time. Sometimes they are lying and sometimes they really believe the false statements they are making. But one thing is certain: Journalists should not be afraid to dig into the evidence underlying justifications for surveillance programs or other enormously significant public policy matters. When they do, they often find answers very different from those spoon fed to them by interested spokespeople. The public deserves nothing less than that basic research.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.