Opinion by Jay Cline

Jay Cline: A growing cultural divide on privacy

This summer's polls show most Americans harbor nuanced support for privacy-invasive government measures. But swing voters back NSA leaker Snowden and a wholesale reform of civil liberties.

Opinion by Jay Cline

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The first time Computerworld offered me a chance to write a privacy column, in April 2002, I argued that there had been "no terrorism toll on privacy" and laid out three criteria for when there would be. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks this summer and subsequent government acknowledgments confirm that one of those criteria has now materialized, 11 years later.

What has been the American public's reaction to Snowden's revelations? Resigned acceptance, if not a bit of relief that our national defense has become so sophisticated. There has been no visible public groundswell against a perceived loss of privacy and freedom.

If Snowden's disclosures over the next few months become more alarming, however, a group of American swing voters may more clearly emerge in the polling data. Surprisingly bipartisan, young, and located in the blue states of the Northeast, this cohort will be receptive to enterprising politicians promising a citizen's privacy bill of rights.

Crossing the privacy Rubicon: One down, two to go

When Julius Caesar and his army crossed the River Rubicon on their march toward Rome, they thereby announced their rebellious challenge to the Roman emperor and passed a life-or-death point of no return. About a decade ago, civil-liberties advocates were warning that the Patriot Act had taken America across the privacy Rubicon.

I disagreed with them, but thought we'd be able to see three markers as we were crossing that privacy point of no return:

  1. A widespread expansion in the scope of the government's collection of personal data,
  2. Courts setting dangerous legal precedents, and finally,
  3. A surge in the number of people harmed by abuses of government-collected data.

Snowden's disclosures have confirmed that the first of those three has come to pass.

What our views of Snowden say about us

I was wondering what Americans of different stripes thought about all of this. According to Der Spiegel, former President Jimmy Carter told a closed-door meeting (German-language link) in July that Snowden had done the right thing and that America no longer had a functioning democracy. In September, the European Parliament nominated Snowden for Europe's top human rights award. But Americans I've spoken to have been far more ambivalent about the exiled government contractor.

So last week I drilled through every poll on Snowden I could find, including a groundbreaking new study by the Lares Institute, a San Diego-based think tank focused on technology, privacy and information governance. What did I discover?

First of all, America is split on Snowden. American adults have maintained a steady ambivalence about the leaker throughout the summer, President Carter and the EU notwithstanding. Quinnipiac University ran the only outlier polls, which in July and August reported that 55% of adults thought Snowden was a hero, versus 35% thinking he was a traitor. The average of all these polls is a 41% to 41% tie.

What's going on here? Are Americans simply divided along the familiar red-conservative and blue-liberal battle lines?

The new Lares Institute poll released last week sheds new light on these questions.

When allowed to choose from a variety of statements about him, less than a third say he fully deserves either the title of hero or traitor. By a 3-to-1 ratio, respondents think he was probably intending to help instead of harm the United States, but by a 4-to-1 ratio, they think he should have made his case in the American courts.

If Snowden hadn't sought refuge with America's geopolitical rival Russia, he'd be soaring in the polls right now. He'd be a neo-Patrick Henry instead of the latest Benedict Arnold. The first thing our views of Snowden say about us is that we value loyalty to the country as much as or more than we value reforming the country.

The Lares poll taught us the second lesson: that our views vary by region. Adults in New England more than any of the other eight U.S. census regions believe that Snowden's actions, however flawed, were well intentioned. What this means is that politicians from New England stand the most to gain by championing Snowden's cause.

Our views also vary by age. All age groups measured by Lares registered more people saying Snowden was a traitor than a hero, except one: those aged 18 to 25 (see Chart 3). This finding is important because it suggests that the longer America's surveillance programs persist at their present level of invasiveness, the more they could lose support if this youthful opposition is a permanent generational mind-set instead of a passing phase of youth. There will be more young Snowdens.

Chart 3: American adults' views of Snowden's actions, by age

When asked which of six statements about Snowden they agreed with, 22% of respondents aged 18 to 25 agreed that he was a "hero," and 18% said he was a "traitor," yielding a 1.2 ratio.

Source: Lares Institute poll, Sept. 26, 2013

Has the surveillance been worth it?

I wrote last month that Snowden seems to be making the anti-CISO case: that all of the money spent on the U.S. government surveillance programs and their potential threats to liberty has not produced a worthwhile security return on investment. Americans are evenly divided on this question as well.

Here's a wrap-up of how we're valuing the security/liberty trade-off:

* The Patriot Act threatens liberty. The EconomistYouGov polls asked three times this summer if the Patriot Act "goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties." The combined results: 44% said yes, while 37% said the act is necessary to fight terrorists.

* Freedom has been lost. The AP-NORC poll on Aug. 15 asked: "As a result of steps taken by the government to fight terrorism, do you feel you lost some of your own personal freedoms, or not?" A slight majority, 51%, said no, while 48% said yes, a statistical tie.

* But it was necessary. The same AP-NORC poll asked respondents if this loss of freedoms was necessary. A stronger 53% said yes, while 44% said no.

* It was almost worth the cost. The EconomistYouGov polls posed the following question on June 10 and again on Sept. 9: "Since September 11, 2001, the United States has fought against the threat of terrorism through military operations abroad and increased security and surveillance inside of the United States. Do you think these actions have been worth the cost?" The combined results: 38% said no, and 37% said yes, a statistical dead heat.

* But it won't get any better. The AP-NORC poll looked forward and asked: "Looking ahead 10 years from now, which comes closest to your view of how the rights and liberties you have will have changed?" A solid 52% said, "On balance you will probably lose more freedoms than you will gain," while only 37% agreed with the choice "There won't really have been any net loss or gain in the amount of freedoms compared with what you have today."

All these polls taken together reflect an America that is mostly resigned to accept the current security/freedom trade-off -- but not happy about it, and so very much primed to change its mind.

Which surveillance measures most gall our sense of freedom?

It may well be that our uneasy equilibrium with the current surveillance state depends on our perception about the types of surveillance measures that are employed. If those perceptions change as a result of further revelations, our support could also change.

On three occasions in June, the EconomistYouGov poll asked respondents for their views on what level of judicial approval, if any, is required for an array of different surveillance measures. Table 1 summarizes the clear results: The widest majorities of Americans believe intrusions upon the private space of home, personal device and vehicle require a warrant. We next value the privacy of our personal communications, followed by the metadata of our transactions, and lastly by our movements within public view.

Table 1: American adults' views of surveillance measures requiring a warrant


Snowden's leaks so far portray a surveillance apparatus that primarily monitors the public space and personal metadata. If the promised series of articles of Glenn Greenwald -- the Guardian reporter who interviewed Snowden in Hong Kong and reportedly received 50,000 files from him -- show the government intruding upon private data and private space, American public opinion could start to move more decidedly into the Snowden camp and against Washington.

Endgame: Falling public trust

The Snowden leaks are playing out against a broader backdrop of eroding public trust in just about every institution. The 2008 financial crisis undermined our confidence in the financial sector and "too big to fail" corporations. Plagiarism and the perception of increasing partisanship within the mass media have prompted a loss in their credibility. Similarly, heightening partisanship within Congress and even the Supreme Court has sunk our support of them to record lows. Table 2 summarizes the most recent trust numbers across key public and private institutions.

Table 2: Americans' levels of trust and support

in public institutions

Institution Percentage who trust it Source
NSA 56 Reason-Rupe poll, Sept. 8
Your cellphone provider 54 Reason-Rupe poll, Sept. 8
Your Internet service provider 51 Reason-Rupe poll, Sept. 8
IRS 51 Reason-Rupe poll, Sept. 8
Mass media 44 Gallup, Sept. 19 (near all-time low of 40, hit in 2012)
Supreme Court 43 Gallup, July 30 (near all-time low of 42, hit in 2005)
President Obama 43 Gallup, Sept. 24 (all-time low of 38 hit in 2011)
Google 41 Reason-Rupe poll, Sept. 8
Facebook 25 Reason-Rupe poll, Sept. 8
Newspapers 23 Gallup, June 17 (near all-time low of 22, hit in 2007)
Television 21 Gallup, July 10, 2012 (all-time low)
Congress 19 Gallup, Sept. 19 (all-time low of 10 hit in 2012)

The Snowden revelations have accelerated the steady implosion of trust. In May, before the Snowden leaks, the Lares Institute measured a 30% level of trust in the U.S. federal government as a whole. Just four months later, this number had plummeted to 19%. No other number measured by the polls this summer changed this dramatically.

These numbers are perhaps the most worrisome of all the polls I mined last week. If we don't trust our institutions, especially the government, they can't work for us. They'll be hobbled by continual partisan controversy, and less able to defend us from our adversaries or enable our prosperity.

Is there a way for the current administration to restore trust?

The answer to this question I think can be found in one of the most startling results of all of the surveys. The Lares poll revealed that 70% of American adults would be more accepting of U.S. government surveillance if the government told them more about how it works and how their personal information is protected.

Transparency isn't exactly what the NSA, or the last two administrations for that matter, have been known for. Without it, though, some enterprising politicians from New England appealing to a national grassroots-youth movement could engineer a more draconian legislative solution.

Jay Cline is president of Minnesota Privacy Consultants.

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