Survey Reveals Begrudging Support of Government Surveillance

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New survey by Boston University graduate students suggests that Americans are willing to accept government surveillance but donÂ?t trust it will always be used appropriately.

With tensions mounting surrounding the renewal of provisions of the Patriot Act, liberal voices would have us believe that Americans resent the act and the surveillance it allows, conservative voices would have us believe that the powers granted investigators under the Patriot Act would only ever be used against real terrorists in the fight against terrorism. Americans, however, see things differently from both sides, according to a recent survey conducted by graduate students at Boston University. While only 37 percent of Americans believe the Patriot Act allows the government to invade their privacy, just 16 percent of Americans believe that surveillance is used exclusively for national security.

The survey conducted by The Big Brother Project at Boston University investigated personal privacy in an era of increasing government surveillance. The results reveal a population torn between its desire to be patriotic and its concern that government surveillance carries the potential for misuse.

Many people are willing to approve of government surveillance largely because they’re not guilty of anything wrong themselves – 56 percent of respondents agree that “people who obey the law have nothing to fear from government surveillance.” Even more people, 78 percent, disagree that their right to privacy is “more important than national security concerns.” However, when presented with specific surveillance activities, citizen willingness diminishes. Only 20 percent of Americans think the government should have access to our e-mail records and just 16 percent believe surveillance of cell phone conversations is appropriate. Yet a slim majority believes both activities are being done regularly.

Commercial activity is also off-limits according to most Americans. Approximately a fourth of Americans are willing to grant the government permission to view credit card records or grocery store loyalty card records. Here again, despite low support for it, two-thirds of citizens believe the government accesses credit card transactions regularly. Chillingly, 47% of Americans believe the government has accessed at least some of their personal records before.

“We Americans are clearly conflicted,” explains Greg Chisholm, a member of the Big Brother Project team. “We don’t want the government monitoring our behavior, but we legitimately want national security protected. We are comfortable with some surveillance, for very specific purposes, but we don’t trust the government to stay within those parameters. The ultimate success of the Patriot Act will depend on legislator’s ability to convince Americans that their national interests are being protected without compromising their private interests.”

About the survey:

The survey was conducted online during the third week of March 2005. The sample of 1,049 participants (463 male, 586 female) was provided by online panel company Survey Sampling International, Inc. and the survey was conducted using Global Market Insite’s online survey tool, Net-MR. As an online survey, the opinions reflected here only represent the two-thirds of households with regular Internet access. For comparison, the margin of error for a randomly selected sample this size is +/- 3%.

About the College of Communication at Boston University

The College of Communication at Boston University is home to the Communication Research Center where professors train undergraduate and graduate students in the science of consumer research and analysis. This project was designed by students under the supervision of Professor James McQuivey.

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James McQuivey, Assistant Professor
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