How much government surveillance will Americans accept?


Darren Davis, University of Notre Dame

The expiration of key provisions of the US Patriot Act – and the passage of the USA Freedom Act – has renewed interest in the trade-offs between civil liberties and security. To what extent are American citizens willing to concede their civil liberties to the government in order to feel safe and secure from terrorism?

With the controversies surrounding NSA’s domestic surveillance, the spotlight has been on the Patriot Act’s challenge to the rights enshrined in the Fourth Amendment – protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Arguments for and against the wiretapping provisions focus on two important, and seemingly opposing, principles: defending the nation against terrorism and protecting the privacy rights of individual citizens.

So where is the consensus of public opinion on this issue? And has it changed over time?

Post 9/11 polling

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, American citizens have been willing to concede certain civil liberties to government – at least theoretically.

Based on my book on public opinion and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, despite security concerns, 55% of American citizens were initially protective of civil liberties in 2001 when the US Patriot Act was enacted; there were definite limits to what individual citizens would tolerate, just as there are today.

The wiretapping provision of the Patriot Act (the now infamous section 215), which caused the most recent trepidation, received relatively minimal support. Only 35% of American citizens endorsed governmental authority to obtain emails and wiretap telephone conversations without a court order. Similarly, a Gallup Poll conducted in June 2002 showed that only 30% of American citizens favored making it easier for legal authorities to access private communications such as mail, email, and telephone conversations.

Protesting the Patriot Act.
Ashleigh Nushawg/flickr, CC BY

Over the past 13 years, public reactions to governmental surveillance have remained more or less stable. Tracking the public’s reaction to surveillance issues has led to an important conclusion: public support increases for government surveillance when there are significant changes in the types of questions asked.

For instance, a Pew survey conducted in 2006 showed that 54% thought it was right for the government to monitor telephone and email communications of “suspected terrorists.”

And recent CNN/ORC poll, for example, finds that 61% percent were supportive of the renewal of the surveillance provisions “in order to locate suspected terrorists.” However, 52% said that little will change regarding the threat of terrorism if the surveillance provision would not be renewed, while less than half — 44% — were of the opinion that the risk of terrorism would rise without the renewed provisions.

Mixed picture

Without uniform polling questions about the US Patriot Act and sporadic polling at best, it is difficult to show an overall trend in public support.

The lack of consistent and reliable polling on this issue prevents conclusive statements when questions arise in response to threatening terrorist events or to discussion of the renewal of the Patriot Act.

People, inside and outside of government, would like the answer to where does the American public falls on issues like government surveillance, but the answer usually has to be pieced together.

My view is that a slight majority of American citizens are probably supportive of the renewal of surveillance provisions. But it is also the case that the public’s appetite for surveillance provisions depends largely on who is under suspicion.

Citizens are willing to make the trade-off between civil liberties and security to the extent that they perceive a terrorist threat and to the extent to which they trust governmental authorities.

However, in the minds of ordinary citizens, trust is very low in governmental authorities, such as the president, Congress, and law enforcement agencies, and there does not seem to be an imminent reason to warrant domestic surveillance.

The current context is drastically different from that of the 9/11 within which the civil liberties and security debate first took place. While there is no event to compel people to think about what is best for the country, a generational gap in the memories of 9/11 and partisan politics now seem to drive the civil liberties and security debate.

The Conversation

Darren Davis is Professor of Political Science at University of Notre Dame.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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