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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Examining Americans' Attitudes About the NSA Surveillance Program

How do we summarize what Americans think about the NSA surveillance programs? I would say that Americans don’t particularly like the programs (which is not surprising), but in some circumstances find them acceptable if that’s what it takes to help investigate and prevent acts of terrorism.   

Our Gallup question on these matters asked if Americans approve or disapprove of the program (more below on how we worded our description). Then, we asked those who disapproved if there were circumstances when they might agree that the use of the programs was acceptable. The original 37% who approve is thus augmented with an additional 21% who initially disapproved, but who -- in response to the follow up question -- said there might be circumstances in which they approved. Putting this 21% together with the original 37% yields 58% who might find the use of the massive database acquisition programs acceptable. 


This equates to quite a range in the attitudes of Americans on this issue, depending on circumstances, and I would say the details of the program as they (the public) understand it. In fact, the way in which the program is described to respondents in the survey question is always an issue when something is new or complex and subject to interpretation.


A comparison the question asked in a Pew/Washington Post survey on this issue with the question we at Gallup asked provides some interesting insights. As I explain in some detail here, the issue isn’t the “right” or “wrong” wording, but rather what we can learn from the responses to the different wording.


Both Gallup and Pew/Post put in their first sentence a reference to the purpose of the program -- to investigate terrorism:


  • Gallup: “...as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism...”
  • Pew/Post:  “...in an effort to investigate terrorism..”

Gallup described the entity involved as  “...a federal government agency..” while Pew/Post specifically mentioned “....the National Security Agency...” We don’t know what difference this makes, but one might assume that the naming of the National Security Agency could have created more of an air of legitimacy.

Gallup described the situation thusly: “...obtained records from larger U.S. telephone and Internet companies in order to compile telephone call logs and Internet communications.” The Pew/Post poll described it as  “...getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans...” Note that the Gallup question included mentions of Internet communications, while the Pew/Post question focuses just on telephone call records. The Pew/Post question mentions “millions of Americans,” while the Gallup question does not.


The Gallup question asked for the respondent’s opinion in this fashion: “Based on what you have heard or read about the program to compile telephone call logs and Internet communications, would you say you approve or disapprove of this government program?” The Pew/Post question asked this: “Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?” Here we see that the Pew/Post question reminds respondents again -- as the final words they hear -- that the purpose is “..to investigate terrorism.” The Gallup question did not remind them of the purpose in the final question. The Pew/Post question asks if this is an acceptable or unacceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism. The Gallup question simply asks if the respondent approves or disapproves. The difference in asking if something is acceptable vs. asking if one approves of it is not quantifiable, but it is certainly possible that the two words provoke different reactions.


I should note that the time frames between the two surveys were slightly different, with Pew/Post in the field June 6-9 (except for one question added on June 7 as their field period had already begun) and Gallup was in the field June 10-11. And the context of the two surveys were different; each had different questions asked before the respondents were asked the key questions about the program.


Perhaps with all of these differences, it is not surprising that the results of the two surveys were different. The Pew/Post poll found that 56% of respondents found the activities, as described, “acceptable,” while the Gallup poll found that 37% "approved" of the activities as we described them. 


However, as I noted above, 21% of Americans initially disapproved of the program in the Gallup survey, but in response to a follow-up question said that there could be circumstances in which it would be right for the government to created a database of telephone logs and Internet communications. That yields the aforementioned 58% who might find the activities acceptable, which is very close to the 56% in the Pew/Post survey who find the activities acceptable as “a way for the federal government to investigate terrorism.”

This range in opinions is, in some ways, not a bit surprising. No one in the government, at the NSA, nor anywhere else probably likes the idea of snooping through everyone's phone calls and emails, but instead finds it a necessary action in the interest of a greater good. One can say that Americans on the whole tend to disapprove of the concept, but when pushed can find it acceptable to use in order to fight terrorism. 


The key in all of this is that people don’t usually have fixed, ironclad attitudes toward many issues stored in some mental filing cabinet ready to be accessed by those who inquire. This is particularly true for something that they don’t think a lot about, something new, and something that has ambiguities and strengths and weaknesses. That’s why we find that random samples of the public ca react differently to a concept, depending on how they are asked about it. Again, this is not a bad thing, nor should it cast negative aspersions on the American population. As is true with the analysis of relationships and differences between variables across all fields of science, it provides us better insights and understanding.


One of the most fascinating patterns in all of this is the big shift in Americans’ attitudes within the data over the past seven years, based on partisan identification. Back in 2006, Republicans approved (by 49% to 12%) of a federal government agency obtaining records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies “in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans,” while Democrats’ views were 16% approve, 50% disapprove. Fast forward to today, Republicans are at 32% approve, 63% disapprove of the current program as described in the survey, while Democrats are at 49% approve, 40% disapprove. In other words, Republicans went from a +37-percentage-point margin of approval in 2006 (with George W. Bush as president) to a -31-point margin today (with Barack Obama as president). Democrats went from a -34-percentage-point margin in 2006 to a +9-point margin today.     


It obviously makes a difference who is president. Partisans apparently tend to make the assumption that if a president of their political allegiance is in office, then the program must be OK.  And vice versa.

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