CIO Briefing

Poll: Most Americans Oppose Sweeping Data Collection, Few Heard About Obama's Speech

Carolyn Kaster/AP

America greeted President Obama's speech last week announcing reforms to the National Security Agency's surveillance programs with collective indifference and broad skepticism, according to to a new wide-ranging Pew Research Center/USA Today poll.

The poll, surveying 1,504 adults Jan. 15-19, found that 53 percent of respondents disapprove of the government's bulk collection of Internet and telephone metadata, marking the first time in Pew's history of tracking the question that a majority of Americans said they opposed sweeping data collection. Forty percent said they approved of the programs.

Equally startling is just how few Americans paid attention to Obama. Fifty percent of respondents didn't hear anything about Obama's proposals, and another 41 percent said they heard just a little. Taken together, those numbers show more than nine in 10 Americans mustering little interest in what Obama had to say following six months of leaks and policy debate that consumed Washington in the second half of 2013.

Of the half of Americans who heard either a lot or little about the NSA changes, only 21 percent said they believed the changes would increase privacy protections. Almost three in four—73 percent—said they expected the reforms to make little difference to privacy. Thirteen percent said they are worried the changes will make it harder to fight terrorism.

The fact that half of those surveyed heard absolutely nothing about the major policy speech was partly self inflicted by the administration, as Obama chose to deliver it on a Friday morning before a holiday weekend.

Democrats, Republicans, and independents all registered lower approval ratings of the government's data sweeps than in June 2013, when details of the NSA's programs began to emerge in major publications around the world. As before, Democrats remain the most supportive group, with 46 percent saying they approve of the efforts, but that number has fallen 12 percent since June. Just 37 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of independents said they approved.

Also noteworthy is the demographic makeup of the falling support. Blacks and Hispanics both notched 60 percent approval of government surveillance back in June, but those groups now register 43 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Whites, on the other hand, have posted a much smaller decline, from 44 percent in June to 39 percent today.

Opinions remain divided on Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who handed over a massive trove of top-secret documents about the NSA's surveillance activities to select journalists last June. Forty-five percent of Americans say his leaks have served public interest, but 43 percent believe Snowden has harmed it. What's worse for open-government activists is that 56 percent say the government should pursue a criminal case against Snowden, further signaling that the fugitive's clemency hopes remain extraordinarily unlikely.

Obama enumerated a series of changes to the way the NSA will collect and store telephone metadata last Friday. Among the reforms, the NSA will no longer maintain ownership of the hundreds of millions of phone records collected from virtually all Americans. Those records will instead by kept either by private phone companies or some other as-yet-undefined third party, and Obama pledged to have a solution in the coming months. Additionally, Obama said all searches of data would now require judicial approval and outlined narrowing search authority. Largely unspecified restrictions on surveillance of American allies were also promised.

Privacy advocates and civil-liberties groups applauded many of the changes but immediately began clamoring for more protections. Several lawmakers indicated plans to continue pursuing legislation that would codify restrictions on NSA surveillance.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said his committee would hold a hearing "in the coming weeks" to inspect Obama's recommendations, as well as those from his review group and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

Pew's poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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