Half of Americans heard ‘nothing at all’ about the president’s NSA speech

(Pew Research)
(Pew Research)

Public opinion polling released by the the Pew Research Center this week shows a majority of Americans disapprove of "the government's collection of telephone and internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts." Forty percent of those surveyed approved of the government's actions, down from 48 percent when leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of the program in June.

But that disapproval doesn't seem to indicate that reforming NSA surveillance is high on the agenda of everyone. In fact, the same Pew poll showed that half of Americans had heard "nothing at all" about the president's NSA speech last Friday. So even though only 21 percent of those who had heard about the changes announced in the speech thought they would increase privacy, many Americans were entirely unaware of what those changes were or were able to make informed decisions about their possible privacy implications.

 

(Pew Research)
(Pew Research)

And other research suggests that although Americans disapprove of the NSA's activities, interest is waning. While Google searches for NSA are still higher than they were before the Snowden leaks, a look at trends over time suggests that fewer people are following the story even as revelations continue to trickle out.


Google Searches for "NSA" over time. (Google Trends)

There's also evidence that even if Americans disapprove of these surveillance actions, they aren't particularly motivated to do anything about it. Recent Gallup polling puts the number of people who say they are dissatisfied with government surveillance in the U.S. at 63 percent — significantly higher than the responses to Pew's more specific question. But while people aren't happy with it, they also don't consider surveillance the most important issue facing the nation. Just 42 percent called it an extremely or very important priority, below a number of other topics as shown in this visualization:

(Gallup)
(Gallup)

Terrorism, the issue NSA defenders invoke to defend its programs, is ranked significantly more important — and the public is generally more satisfied with where the nation stands on the issue.

But despite being lauded as part of the tool set that is keeping Americans safe, the presidential task force assigned to review NSA programs was unable to find a single incident in which the domestic phone records program stopped an imminent terror threat. And NSA opponents can take solace in at least one other data point from Pew's recent poll: Seventy percent agree that "Americans shouldn't have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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