Privacy SOS

Poll: Youth, independents most critical of surveillance policies

A new Washington Post/ABC news poll finds that over half of the US population thinks the NSA’s surveillance programs make either little difference in aiding the country's national security, or actively hurt it.

Forty-seven percent of respondents said they think the programs don't do much at all to promote public safety, while five percent said they think the spying actually puts us at greater risk. Only forty-two percent said they think the programs work to keep the public safe. (I would urge those among the latter group to visit the site of the Boston Marathon bombings here in my city, where they will find echoes of a violent plot that went off without a hitch despite the NSA’s democracy-crushing surveillance state.)

The Post/ABC poll found that more people value privacy as a “sacrosanct” right that should be prioritized over government investigatory powers than in 11 years of polling on the question. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that partisans typically support government powers to investigate freely, whereas independents are split nearly down the middle on the (admittedly problematic and simplified) question of which is paramount, ‘privacy or security’. 

The general agreement among Republicans and Democrats on the trade-off between investigating terrorist threats and protecting personal privacy is notable in a time when there are often wide partisan divisions on most issues.

On most questions in the new survey, Republicans and Democrats respond in almost identical ways. For example, on the broad question of whether the NSA surveillance programs intrude on privacy rights, 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans say they do.

Independents, on the other hand, now split about evenly between prioritizing investigating threats or protecting privacy, 50 to 45 percent. Democrats and Republicans both remain about 2 to 1 supportive of investigations, even at the risk of privacy intrusions.

In other words, despite acknowledging that the NSA programs don’t do much to ‘Keep Us Safe’ and simultaneously threaten our privacy rights, most Republicans and Democrats are likely to support expansive state spying powers anyway. 

But it isn’t all bad. Contrary to claims that younger generations don’t value their privacy, or that their addiction to digital connectedness has rendered privacy obsolete for them, those between the ages of 18-29 constituted the only age group surveyed “that doesn’t clearly prioritize investigations” over personal privacy, the Post and ABC found.

In short, according to this poll, freedom and privacy are prized among the young and the politically independent. Committed partisans and older people are more likely to accept encroachments on their privacy and freedom in exchange for what most of them acknowledge are false promises of safety. That’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.