Americans' Conflicting Attitudes On Surveillance

Most believe the U.S. government should monitor calls and emails to prevent terrorism — but most also believe the government is using the information for other purposes. Guest host Linda Wertheimer examines Americans' seemingly contradictory attitudes toward privacy and federal surveillance programs.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

According to the Pew Research Center for the People in the Press, we Americans are marginally in favor of federal government surveillance of our telephone calls and our emails in the interest of curbing or preventing terrorism. But that said, the Pew survey also shows that we don't trust our federal government much further than we could toss the Washington Monument.

About the government's assertions that only metadata is being collected - that is to say, only telephone numbers and email addresses - as a nation, we suspect that's hooey. Seventy percent of us think the data is being collected for purposes other than policing terrorists. Sixty-three percent think the government is actually collecting the content of the calls and emails. And about half of those who thing so believe the feds are already reading their emails or listening to their telephone calls.

If that is true, we have to give up now and forever on any notions that the government might be smaller. Even armed with algorithms, it would take a lot of people to monitor all our communicating. But still, by a narrow margin, 50 to 44 percent, we think that maybe we better let the feds continue with this information harvest.

As much as I enjoy the apparently conflicting ideas we chose to believe at the same time, as recorded in the Pew study, I think this is a fairly typical example of that great American virtue common sense. While we feel ourselves to be in danger and are willing to be surveyed to help keep danger at bay, we also know that anything can be done will be done. If all that data is sitting somewhere, someone will look at it, and then someone will think of something to do with all that information. That's just common sense.

Another interesting thing in this data, though, is bipartisan agreement. About the same number of Democrats and Republicans - roughly four in 10 - now think anti-terror policies have gone too far in eroding civil liberties. That is not a majority but it's broad agreement. Independents and voters who identify with the Tea Party feel even more strongly that civil liberties are endangered. That almost sounds like a coalition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME")

ROCKWELL: (Singing) I'm just an average man with an average life. I work from 9 to 5, hey, hell, I pay the price. All I want is to be left alone in my average home. But why do I always feel like I'm in the twilight zone? And I can only feel like somebody's watching me...

WERTHEIMER: That's Rockwell, "Somebody's Watching Me." You're listening to NPR News.

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