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June 12, 2013

Poll: Contra Pew, The American Public Is Not On Board with an Unrestrained Surveillance State

Pew came out with some counterintuitive numbers on Americans' beliefs about security and civil liberties-- to wit, the love the former and care not a whit about the latter.

* 62% say the government should investigate terrorist threats regardless of privacy intrusion (the other option is no privacy intrusion no matter what)

* 56% say that tracking millions of call records is acceptable in the effort to investigate terrorism (the other option is that tracking millions of call records no matter what is unacceptable)

* 45% say the government should be able to monitor email and online activities to prevent future terror attacks (the other option is that it is unacceptable)

These questions are a little misleading, the respondent is being forced to choose between a false dichotomy in each one. The situation we have on our hands isn't simply the choice between MONITOR EVERYBODY and MONITOR NOBODY. We can certainly monitor people who are suspicious. Why force people to choose between pure safety and pure privacy?

By offering more granular (and realistic) options, respondents aren't force to choose one at the exclusion of the other.

Have Pew and the WaPo learned nothing from their Magic Boyfriend, the one given to saying things like this:

"Some say that we should have full 24/7 video surveillance of every citizen at all times, including in the bathroom and the bedroom. Others say we should gladly kneel before terrorists so that they can cut our throats without having to strain themselves reaching. I reject this false choice."

Well, CBS has done a poll with more realistic, granular answer choices, and finds that Americans reject this false choice as well, and also, aren't quite as cool with perpetual surveillance as Obama's Teenage FanClub would have you think. Compare the questions asked by the WaPo and CBS, respectively, and the answers each received.

WaPo/Pew: "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?"

CBS: "In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, do you approve or disapprove of federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans?"

In the first instance, the question does not allow a distinction between those under suspicion of terrorism and "ordinary" Americans, forcing the respondent to choose between fighting terrorism with surveillance on everyone or doing nothing at all-- presumably allowing the slaughter of innocent people as terrorists run rampant in the American streets. In the second (CBS) there is that difference and the result is more heartening about attitudes toward privacy rights. (It's still too low in my opinion, but that is a post for another day.)

The result of this semantic trickery is that WaPo/Pew can say more than half (56%) approve of the government obtaining their call records, whereas according to CBS,we find that 58% disapprove of the government snooping on their call records. Those findings are diametrically opposed!

Indeed. A magician that forces you to draw the Seven of Diamonds isn't really all that surprised when -- Abracadabra! -- your card turns out to be the Seven of Diamonds.

Note: I'm working on a Great Big Essay. Content will be a bit thin and light while I work on this in background.

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posted by Ace at 12:43 PM

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