Framing the question on electronic surveillance

Quinnipiac has published a poll purporting to find the following facts:

  • 55 percent of Americans say Edward Snowden is a “whistle-blower”, as opposed to 34 percent calling him a “traitor”;
  • voters say 45 – 40 percent the government’s anti-terrorism efforts go too far restricting civil liberties, a reversal from a January 10, 2010 survey … when voters said 63 – 25 percent that such activities didn’t go far enough to adequately protect the country.
  • While voters support the phone-scanning program 51 – 45 percent and say 54 – 40 percent that it “is necessary to keep Americans safe,” they also say 53 – 44 percent that the program “is too much intrusion into Americans’ personal privacy”.

Now, the most striking thing to me is that 88 percent of the people surveyed in January 2010 thought they knew enough about the government’s intrusion on personal privacy to even formulate an opinion — in particular, that 63 percent thought they knew enough about the scope to say that it didn’t go far enough.

But even more interesting is the formulation of the question that got 54% to agree that “the phone-scanning program” is “necessary”. (It is noteworthy that at least 4% of those surveyed both support the program and believe that it is “too much intrusion”. They must have a different concept than I have of either the word “support” or “too much”.) What they were asked was

Do you support or oppose the federal government program in which all phone calls are scanned to see if any calls are going to a phone number linked to terrorism?

Now, if you put it that way, I’d kind of support it myself. “Scanning” sounds pretty innocuous, and “phone numbers linked to terrorism” sound pretty ominous. But that’s only a small part of what’s being done. They are receiving all metadata — that’s a lot more than just a phone number — and storing them, presumably, forever. They are data-mining to try to identify patterns. They are already, or are preparing to, store the content of all communications, so they may be examined in depth if there is sufficient reason in the future.

And how much of this is this about terrorism? We don’t know. And even if it is about terrorism right now, it won’t take long before enthusiastic or corrupt government officials think of all kinds of other legitimate purposes of government that could be promoted by just breaking down some of the petty bureaucratic restrictions on use of the data.

To put it in the crassest terms: This sort of unfocused big-data espionage may be marginally useful for catching terrorists, but it seems certain to be far more useful for pressuring or destroying political opponents of the anti-terror policies.

One thought on “Framing the question on electronic surveillance”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: