Public Increasingly Wary of the NSA, Poll Finds

By Patrick Tucker

November 12, 2014

During his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year, Adm. Michael Rogers, now commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, said that he saw it as his job as the head of the NSA to change public attitudes toward the NSA’s activities.

Public concern about NSA activities has been on a slow but steady climb since the disclosures of the Snowden scandal in 2013.

I believe one of the takeaways form the situation over the last few months is that as an intelligence professional…I have to be capable of communicating in a way that highlights what we are doing and why to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

A new poll out from the Pew Research Center shows just how difficult a job it will be for Rogers, or anyone in United States intelligence collection, to win back public support.

In a survey of more than 607 adults:

More than 43 percent said that they heard “a lot” about “the government collecting information about telephone calls, emails, and other online communications as part of efforts to monitor terrorist activity,” and another 44 percent of respondents had heard at least a something about it.  More disconcerting for Rogers is that they aren’t happy.

One of the most notable findings in the study is that those who have heard the most about government surveillance are more privacy-sensitive across an array of questions in the survey
Mary Madden, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center

Some 80 percent of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications.”

Of particular concern to the respondents is the possibility of government surveillance over social media content, with more than 70 percent of social network uses (64 percent of the adult surveyed population) saying that they are concerned about the government accessing their posted social media information without their knowledge. Some 37 percent reported feeling “very concerned.”

The perception of government surveillance on social media like Facebook is affecting user behavior on those networks. A previous Pew poll found that while 86 percent of respondents were willing to discuss NSA surveillance activity in person, only 42 percent were willing to have a similar discussion online, for fear of government surveillance.

Shortly after the Snowden scandal, a Pew report showed that a majority of Americans, 56 percent, believed the NSA’s phone metadata program — as reported at the time — was an “acceptable” way to track terrorist activity, with the public more evenly split on government surveillance of email and online activity.  But a separate poll from September of that year showed that a broad majority of Americans (68 percent) did not believe that current law did enough to protect privacy online. The most recent poll shows those attitudes hardening somewhat.

One of the most notable findings in the study is that those who have heard the most about government surveillance are more privacy-sensitive across an array of questions in the survey,” The report’s lead author Mary Madden, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center said in a statement.  “Those who are more aware of the monitoring programs feel considerably less secure using any communications channel to share private information.”

The poll also suggests that those members of congress looking to reign in NSA powers through passage of the stalled USA Freedom Act, may have political cover to do so, especially now that the midterm elections are over.  The bill would move bulk metadata collection from the government to phone companies like Verizon, where intelligence workers would then access it only after approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. “The bill would also usher in a host of additional privacy and transparency measures, including a more precise definition of what can be considered a surveillance target,” writes Dustin Volz at National Journal.

The poll was released to the public on the morning on November 11th, 2014 but was part of a broader survey fielded online January 11-28, 2014. The margin of error is 4 percent.

By Patrick Tucker // Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years. Tucker has written about emerging technology in Slate, The Sun, MIT Technology Review, Wilson Quarterly, The American Legion Magazine, BBC News Magazine, Utne Reader, and elsewhere.

November 12, 2014