Thursday, June 13, 2013

Public opinion and privacy: Weird contradictory polling on NSA phone spying scandal

Hard to know what to make of this. To my knowledge, there have been two national polls thus far regarding US public opinion on privacy issues related to revelations that the National Security Agency keeps metadata from domestic US phone calls in a massive database. A Pew-Washington Post poll found that 56% of American adults support the phone-spying program and 41% oppose it, a result I found surprising and a tad depressing. Then almost immediately thereafter a Gallup poll came out reaching virtually the opposite conclusion, finding that Americans disapprove of the program by a margin of 53%-37%.

Both, obviously, cannot be accurate. Maybe neither are. The Gallup poll conforms more to my own predilections, a fact which makes me hesitant to instantly embrace it given the risk of confirmation bias. But I'll admit I was relieved to see evidence contradicting that Pew-WP poll, whose results seemed fantastically out of kilter with my own experience and expectations. Basically, this means we'll have to wait for multiple additional polls on the topic and average them before it's possible to guess what the public really thinks. These two polls don't jibe with one another even at the extreme ends of their confidence intervals. There's no way to accept them both.

One element that did stand out in both surveys: Support for the NSA phone-spying program would be much lower were it not for Democrats who appear so intent on Obama apologia that they're willing (IMO hypocritically) to back him on policies they criticized George W. Bush over just a few years ago. (See the fourth table here titled "Partisan shifts in views of NSA surveillance programs.") That's an embarrassment.

The truth is, whether or not there's majority support for privacy reform, and there might be, there's no doubt a vocal, bipartisan minority ardently supports it and the pro-life folks have shown that's more than enough to organize an effective political movement. These are issues that cut across party lines. The trick is going to be to convince partisans not to be fair-weather privacy advocates, criticizing Big Brother abuses only when they're undertaken by a member of the opposite political party. If that hump can be overcome, IMO the public would heartily welcome pretty sweeping privacy reforms at both the state and federal levels.


Thomas Hobbes said...

You have to look at the questions and then wonder about the folks who designed the surveys and how they were interpreted . . .

Pew/WP: "NSA has been getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism . . ."

Gallup: "As you may know, as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism, a federal government agency obtained records from larger U.S. telephone and Internet companies in order to compile telephone call logs and Internet communications. Based on what you have heard or read about the program, would you say you approve or disapprove of the government program?"

I suppose I'm thinking Pew's mention of a court order might suggest judicial oversight and divert respondents from considering the tactic itself, regardless of whether it is sanctioned.

In another question, Pew asks whether it is more important to investigate terrorist threats or to not intrude on privacy. 62%, of course, responded that investigating terrorist threats is more important, but I think it's fair to say that the question didn't accurately characterize what the NSA has been doing.

You have to wonder what the outcome would have been if respondents had been asked, "How do you feel about the NSA collecting telephone call metadata on tens of millions of Americans without any articulable suspicion that any of those people have done anything wrong so that the NSA can maintain the data indefinitely and later comb through as they wish without having to go back to any court or other disinterested third party for permission?"

Phelps said...

Hobbes has it. The way the questions are being couched, there are only two possible answers:

A) It's OK to look at internet traffic to find terrorists

B) It's never OK for the government to look at internet traffic

The actual issue -- the blanket collection of everything that happens on the internet involving ordinary Americans -- has yet to be polled.

John C. Key MD said...

I think the disparity is due to the fact that the issue is really in flux, or as Drudge would say, "developing".

I believe that most Americans supported "snooping" in one form or another post-9/11 but we were generally led to believe that we were snooping on foreign, rather than domestic communications. After all the "F" in FISA and FISC does mean foreign, not domestic. But several changes have ensued: First of all, the FISA Court has decided that within their purview is not only FOREIGN communications, but rather any that are routed through a server located in the United States, which broadens the scope considerably. Second, there is concern about which calls are monitored or logged, is it foreign or domestic, telephone or email, communications only or more widespread data mining. Finally, the recently exposed antics of the Obama administration regarding the IRS and its other "scandals" has given pause to a lot of people on both the left and right about just whom all Big Brother is watching, and what he will do with the information he gathers. Will he arrest you, or audit your tax return, or what?

I predict that we will see opinions change on this as the light shines more brightly on these surveillance activities. Let us hope the light is allowed to shine.

Unknown said...

I have not seen the polls, but I suspect that the way the polls are worded could have something to do with the discrepancy?

Do you want Uncle Sam listening to your conversations? versus

Do you want to be safe from terrorists even if it means Uncle Sam listening in on private conversations?

Those two questions would, in my opinion, produce remarkably different results?

Anonymous said...

Actually that was Charles, not Patricia on the previous post. This one probably will say Patricia as well.

ckikerintulia said...

trying to sign in as charles

Anonymous said...

I am more concerned about how the administration used the IRS and other federal agencies to attack its opponents and steal the election.

Phillip Baker said...

The Democrats "steal the election"?? That's rich, given the brazen stealing of the election in 2000 to select W. Just had to say that.

One of my hopes for the Obama administration was that is would divest the presidency of the enormous and largely unchecked powers Rove/Cheney and company larded onto it (They believed they had a 60 year lock on the office). It is one of my biggest disappointments that he has not only failed to do so, but has further enlarged presidential powers. The "separation of powers" is badly out of balance now, thanks to the above mentioned gang, a completely supine Congress, and a people who can't be bothered to do their most basic duties as citizens of a representative government. We are seeing the results of that play out now.