The Pulse

Trading Privacy for Security

Americans are still willing to forgive the NSA's intrusions, but are U.S. friends abroad?

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

The American people believe that the National Security Agency may have gone too far in spying on U.S. allies. They also think that the NSA has intruded on Americans’ personal privacy in scooping up massive amounts of private phone calls and emails. But don’t expect to see citizens taking to the streets. In fact, in the pursuit of terrorists, a majority will still trade privacy for security. And while it’s pretty clear the NSA is watching, it’s unclear to what extent Americans care.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans thought it unacceptable for the United States to monitor the phone calls of the leaders of allied nations, including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. Just 36 percent thought it acceptable. But then again, just 22 percent said they were following this story very closely.

Americans are, however, wary of the NSA’s possible invasion of their own privacy. In a mid-July Washington Post-ABC News survey, nearly half (49 percent) said they thought that the NSA’s surveillance program intruded on their personal privacy rights. And 74 percent said it infringed on some Americans’ privacy, if not their own. Drilling down further, men were more worried than women about their personal data, younger people more than older people, Independents more than Democrats and Republicans, and the most worried (56 percent) were those with a college education.

Nevertheless, when asked to balance security worries against privacy concerns, Americans continue to opt for security. In that same Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57 percent felt that it was important for the federal government to investigate terrorist threats, even if it intrudes on personal privacy. Just 39 percent said that the government should not intrude on personal privacy, even if it limits the ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. Again, women much more than men were willing to sacrifice privacy for security, and the old much more than the young.

But what about America’s image abroad? The U.S. government’s respect for individual liberty has long been a strong suit of American public diplomacy. Even in many nations where opposition to U.S. foreign policy is widespread and where overall ratings for the United States are low, majorities or pluralities have believed that individual rights are respected in America.

In 2013, before many of the revelations about the NSA activity had been published, the Pew Research Center asked people in 39 nations if they thought the United States government respected the personal freedoms of its people. A median of 70 percent said it did, including majorities or pluralities in 37 of 39 nations. In contrast, a median of only 36 percent said this about China.

In that survey, America’s reputation as a stalwart defender of civil liberties was particularly strong in Italy (82 percent), Germany (81 percent), France (80 percent), and Spain (69 percent). This would have come as good news to policymakers in Washington. Positive views of Uncle Sam’s record had risen 20 points in Spain, 15 points in France, and 11 points in Germany since the dark days of 2008. But today, these are all countries where the public outcry against the NSA spying has been loudest.

So Americans are of two minds about recent allegations of NSA surveillance of phone and email communications. They worry about its impact on international relations and their own privacy. But that concern continues to be trumped by their ongoing anxiety about terrorism. How all this plays out overseas, especially in Europe, where until recently the United States was seen as a protector of civil liberties, is an open question. But tidings don’t look good.

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