In poll, the public is just fine with government snooping in the name of counterterrorism


Because virtually all cyber-surveillance goes unnoticed by the target at the time of the data collection, people don’t feel their privacy being invaded, and thus don’t respond as if it has been. (iStock)

Americans! Your government has been secretly logging your phone calls! Federal agents can track your e-mail! They can know your online activity! No warrant needed!

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THIS OUTRAGE?

Meh, it turns out.

In the wake of revelations about vast amounts of personal data gathered by the National Security Agency in its anti-terrorism work, a recent Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll of 1,004 adults showed that as long as the government said it was investigating terrorism, about half didn’t mind if that included tracking basic information on phone calls or monitoring “everyone’s” e-mail and online activity. A solid majority — 62 percent — said it was more important for the government to investigate terrorism than it was to protect personal privacy.

Wait a minute — what happened to that famed American independence, not to mention the Fourth Amendment? Have we become so beaten down by the relentless progression of social technology — video cameras, GPS devices, online tracking — that we’ve surrendered our right to privacy?

“I’m disappointed but not surprised,” said Harry R. Lewis, co-author of “Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion” and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. “People are so willing to say, ‘Gee, I haven’t done anything wrong so it’s okay with me if the government searches everybody’s phone calls and e-mails.’ ”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the NSA on Tuesday over the practice. Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said “terrorism” was likely the magic word in the survey, prompting people to say, almost patriotically, that they were more concerned for national security than themselves.

“There’s just a palatable fear for our safety from terrorism,” she said. “If ‘terrorism’ was left out, it would change the polling results dramatically.”

The poll registered a slight uptick in acceptance of the practice from a similar poll in 2006, indicating that Americans have become more accepting of government inspection of, if not intrusion upon, their private lives.

It’s also part of a sweeping change in popular culture — and one’s sense of privacy — over the past two decades of exponential growth in communications and computer-generated monitoring.

Speeding and traffic cameras track drivers, video cameras in public places are ubiquitous, smartphones snap and send photographs in seconds, satellites track vehicles, and social media sites exchange vast amounts of personal information.

In terms of security, some of this is very good.

The Boston Marathon bombing suspects were tracked down because security cameras filmed the pair moving toward the race’s finish line moments before the explosion. Hours after those images went public, the brothers were identified and, after a dramatic chase, one was killed and the other captured.

In the District, a bizarre street-cafe robbery was recently caught on video, leading police to the gun-toting suspect within days.

The potential problems, cybersecurity experts say, are so multifaceted, spreading out in so many ways, that it’s hard for people to grasp the extent of potential police powers.

“The NSA says they weren’t listening in on conversations,” Lewis said. “But every telephone conversation in the United States could be recorded and stored for very modest sums of money. . . . There is no technological or economic barrier to doing that.”

The critical barrier to government intrusion is, of course, the Fourth Amendment. It states the government can’t go poking into citizens’ personal affairs without a reasonable cause: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . . .”

But because virtually all cyber-surveillance goes unnoticed by the target at the time of the data collection, people don’t feel their privacy being invaded, and thus don’t respond as if it has been. “People have the illusion that information in digital form is in some sort of different status,” Lewis says.

And, finally, the experts say, people have yet to comprehend the myriad ways in which personal information, however it is acquired, might be used against them. Political candidates or businesses use cookies online to track people’s habits. Private intelligence companies compile public-records databases and social media sites for personal data and then package that information for sale.

Lori Andrews, director of the Institute of Science, Law, and Technology at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and the author of “I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy,” refers to this treasure trove of information as “the new coin of the realm” for businesses. She worries that the individual person is getting lost in the huge chunks of information “and is just being seen as another piece of data.”

She talks of legal cases in which people’s online information has cost them jobs, promotions and child custody. Because most of this information is collected without the subjects’ knowledge, they are powerless to correct false or misleading reports about them, she says. For example, she notes that she does pro-bono work for people with diabetes and writes mystery novels, researching issues for both online.

“A life insurer could easily use that information against me, thinking I have these risky hobbies, plus a disease,” she says.

Murphy, the ACLU director, says that poll results and opinions of the masses are, no matter how well intentioned, not the point of constitutional protections. While it might be fine for your neighbors to let the government inspect their personal lives, it’s not okay for your neighbors to say it’s fine for officials to inspect you.

“The whole purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect the minority from the will of the majority,” she says.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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