Changing Attitudes in How we Think About Surveillance

John Sides just posted some survey results comparing attitudes about secret National Security Agency wiretapping, comparing polls in 2006 and 2013. At first glance, support for the surveillance seems slightly higher than before, with 51% supporting it in 2006, and 56% supporting it now.

But look carefully at the questions:

In 2006: “secretly listening . . . without court approval”

In 2013: “getting secret court orders . . .”

So, more people support wiretapping now—-but the survey stipulates that the NSA got court orders. Sure, they’re “secret” court orders, but it means that a judge is somewhere in the loop. In contrast, the 2006 poll asked about extrajudicial wiretapping.

On the other direction, the 2013 question refers to “millions of Americans,” whereas the 2006 question asks about a more restricted class: “people suspected of terrorist involvement.”

I don’t know how important the question wording is; maybe people are just giving their gut reactions to recent headlines. On a substantive level, though, there’s a difference between tapping millions of phones vs. monitoring terrorist suspects, and there’s a difference between court order and no court order. I don’t know how I would respond to the poll now, and I don’t know how I’d have responded in 2006.

In his post, John also notes that attitudes are partisanly skewed, with a combination of two factors: (a) Members of the president’s party are more supportive than members of the opposition party, and (b) averaging the surveys from both years, Republicans are generally more supportive of surveillance than Democrats are.

Given the murkiness of the issue, it seems perfectly rational for people to be more supportive of secret government power when they trust the people running the government. (This is not intended to contradict John’s post in any way, just to elaborate on it.)

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.