Years after the world learned that the United States has a vast surveillance apparatus, Americans have generally come to support these programs. In fact, a new report from Pew shows that not only do most Americans approve of mass surveillance, they believe it's acceptable for the government to engage in more aggressive practices than it probably already does.
Depending on the wording of the question, several polls have found that a majority, or near majority, of Americans believe that the U.S. government should prioritize investigating terrorist threats over protecting privacy. Broadly speaking, 56 percent believe that the National Security Agency's phone and Internet spying program is an "acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism.”
But Pew's latest poll shows just how much spying Americans believe is acceptable. "The public generally believes it is acceptable for the government to monitor many others, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders," the Pew Report concludes.
Sixty percent of respondents believe it's acceptable to monitor the communications of both American and foreign leaders. When news reports leaked that the U.S. government was in fact likely monitoring the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and current members of Congress, there was immediate outrage from the national press. Germany launched an investigation into the monitoring, which they believed was both illegal and a brazen violation of accepted norms.
Evidently, most Americans think such actions are acceptable. And, even if Americans don't like the government spying on U.S. citizens, they don’t much mind being surveilled. Over 50 percent of Americans are "not very" concerned or not concerned "at all" if the government is monitoring their email and Internet searches.
It is highly unlikely that any one person will be monitored by the NSA; there are only so many thousands of people the NSA’s employees can monitor. Not only would it be highly illegal for the NSA to monitor this many innocent Americans, but technically impossible. Still, most Americans wouldn't object, it seems.
What were respondents thinking who support this kind of spying? Pew recorded a few responses:
- “Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide and should not be concerned.”
- “I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”
- “Small price to pay for maintaining our safe environment from terrorist activities.”
To be sure, some Americans are concerned about surveillance, and a small slice of them have taken specific actions to skirt government snooping. Fifteen percent of those surveyed say they use social media less often nowadays, and 14 percent say they've chosen face-to-face communication over discussing something online.
Perhaps this is why, over the past 30 years, elected representatives have increased the government's spying apparatus, under both Democrats and Republicans. For the most part, expansions in monitoring laws and capabilities have been fueled by threats to American security, from the 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombing.
But, even as the emergency of these incidences fade, the apparatus built around them persists. If American attitudes are any indication, our current spying programs will be around for a long time.