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Majority of Americans support phone tracking, oppose email spying, says Pew

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nsa (chris hardle flickr)
nsa (chris hardle flickr)

It turns out that a majority of Americans actually don’t mind the NSA spying on them. Or at least that’s the case when its sweeping intelligence gathering programs are described as an invasion of privacy. A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that 56 percent of Americans think the NSA’s blanket compilation of their telephone metadata is an acceptable way to investigate terrorist threats, while only 41 percent find it unacceptable.

62 percent thought the pursuit of terrorists outweighed privacy concerns

Those numbers are more stark when respondents are asked to weigh the importance of two goals, "investigate terrorist threats" and "not intrude on privacy." In that case, 62 percent thought the pursuit of terrorists outweighed privacy concerns, a slight decrease from 68 percent in November, 2010. The numbers diverge among age groups, however — 45 percent of respondents between 18 and 30 replied that privacy was more important, "even if that limits [the government’s] ability to investigate possible terrorist threats." In contrast, less than 30 percent of respondents over 50 felt the same way.

Republicans have become much more opposed to email snooping

However, when asked if the government ought to be able to monitor emails if it might prevent future terror attacks, 52 percent of people answered "no," not only swinging the balance of opinion against government spying, but also reflecting a five-percentage-point increase from the same question in 2002. The disparity between majority support for phone tracking and opposition to email filtering could owe to the perception that telephone metadata is more benign. Interestingly, Republicans have become much more (13 percentage points) opposed to email snooping over the past decade, while Democrats have become more (eight percentage points) amenable to the idea.

The news that so many are all right with wholesale government spying might lead one to think that people aren't following the news, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Pew found that just under half of respondents were following the story "very" or "fairly" closely. Unsurprisingly, the least informed on the government’s widespread spying programs are young people, only 12 percent of whom claimed to be in the "very closely" camp.