Poll: Privacy concerns rise after NSA leaks

July 24, 2013

Concerns about personal privacy are on the rise, with a big majority of Americans saying the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone and Internet data intrudes on citizens’ rights without clear improvements in U.S. security, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the NSA programs are infringing on some Americans’ privacy rights, and about half see those programs as encroaching on their own privacy. Most of those who see the programs as compromising privacy say the intrusions are unjustified.

The percentage of Americans who put a higher priority on privacy protections than the investigation of terrorist threats has more than doubled in a decade and has hit the highest point in any Post-ABC News poll dating back to summer 2002. Today, about four in 10 say it is more important to protect privacy even if that limits the government’s ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

Some of the discomfort stems from doubts that the programs are making the United States safer. Only 42 percent say the programs make the country safer. More, 47 percent, see the programs as making little difference in the country’s security. And 5 percent say they actually make the nation less safe.

Details of the programs were revealed earlier this summer by a former government contract worker, Edward Snowden. The NSA has acknowledged that it collects the telephone records of millions of Americans — information on phone numbers they have dialed and the length of their calls — but has said it does not collect the contents of the conversations. The agency previously collected a vast trove of data on Americans’ e-mail but ended that program in 2011.

Most think NSA is violating privacy rights but want Snowden charged with a crime

For the past month, Snowden has been holed up in the transit area of a Moscow airport. As he has awaited word on whether Russia might grant him asylum, sympathy for him has diminished. In the new poll, 53 percent say Snowden should be charged with a crime, up 10 percentage points in a month. About half of all Americans say Snowden’s leaks have hurt U.S. security, although barely more than two in 10 say they’ve had a big effect.

With Snowden’s prospects for asylum in Russia unclear, the White House has been vague about whether President Obama willvisit Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin in September.

In the poll, 56 percent say Obama should not cancel his trip if Russia were to grant asylum to Snowden. There have been a few suggestions that the United States should consider boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but there’s minimal public support for such a step: 82 percent say the United States should not boycott next year’s Games.

Those who see Snowden’s disclosures as significantly harming U.S. security take a harder line on whether Obama should cancel his trip if Russia grants Snowden even temporary asylum. A majority of this group, 55 percent, say Obama should stay home. Among this group, 32 percent support for an Olympic boycott, but 66 percent remain opposed.

Other countries are considering Snowden’s request for asylum, and at this point, most Americans are not in a mood to inflict serious penalties on any nation that might accept him. About four in 10 say the United States should impose economic sanctions, but a majority, 54 percent, say no such sanctions should result.

When it comes to allowing infringements on personal privacy to investigate terrorist threats, Americans now divide 57 percent for unfettered investigations and 39 percent on the side of sacrosanct privacy.

That’s the closest split in 11 years of polling. Peak support for putting a higher priority on unfettered investigations, even if that infringes on personal privacy, came in June 2002, when 79 percent held this view. Only three years ago, as many as 68 percent took this position.

Politically, the biggest change on this question has been among self-identified independents. Independents now split about evenly between prioritizing investigating threats or protecting privacy, 50 to 45 percent. Democrats and Republicans both remain about 2 to 1 supportive of investigations, even at the risk of privacy intrusions.

Young adults, those ages 18 to 29, also now divide evenly on the question (49 to 48 percent), making them the only age group that doesn’t clearly prioritize investigations.

The general agreement among Republicans and Democrats on the trade-off between investigating terrorist threats and protecting personal privacy is notable in a time when there are often wide partisan divisions on most issues.

On most questions in the new survey, Republicans and Democrats respond in almost identical ways. For example, on the broad question of whether the NSA surveillance programs intrude on privacy rights, 70 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans say they do.

Democrats and Republicans are closely divided on the question of whether these programs make the country safer from terrorism. Just over half in both parties say Snowden’s leaks of classified materials have harmed U.S. security and say he should be charged with a crime for leaking classified material.

The poll was conducted July 18 to 21 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full poll have an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.

Cohen is polling director at Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Scott Clement and Kimberly N. Hines contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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