The Pew results present only a partial picture of public opinion on surveillance. At Cato, David Kirby writes that the poll shows that Americans are far less sanguine about surrendering their privacy rights, as more information emerges.
Pollsters faced a difficult challenge—to accurately capture public opinion during a complex and evolving story. Recall, on Wednesday of last week, the story was about the NSA tracking Verizon phone records. So the pollsters drew up a perfectly reasonable and balanced question:As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?Fifty-six percent found this “acceptable.” Thus, the “majority of Americans” lead in the Washington Post.
However, on Thursday, the Washington Post revealed explosive details about the massive data-collection program PRISM—and the public was alerted that the NSA was not just collecting phone records, but email, Facebook, and other online records. So the pollsters quickly drew up a new question, asked starting Friday, from June 7-9:Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?Fifty-two percent—a majority—said “no.” So Americans feel differently about the story based on the facts on Wednesday, when the story was about tracking “telephone calls,” and facts on Thursday, when the story was about motoring all “email and other online activity.”
In the wake of the recent disclosure of two classified U.S. surveillance programs, most Americans disapprove of the government collecting the phone numbers of ordinary Americans, but approve of its monitoring those suspected of terrorist activity, according to a new CBS News poll.
Seventy-five percent of Americans approve of federal agencies collecting the phone records of people the government suspects of terrorist activity, but a 58 percent majority disapproves of this type of data collection in the case of ordinary Americans.
Majorities of Republicans and independents oppose the government collecting phone records of ordinary Americans; Democrats are divided.