Americans Say They Want The Patriot Act Renewed ... But Do They, Really? : It's All Politics A new poll says Americans want NSA data collection renewed. Yet another recent survey says Americans want better controls on what kind of data the government can collect. What's going on?

Americans Say They Want The Patriot Act Renewed ... But Do They, Really?

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So what do Americans think about government surveillance programs? Pollsters have been asking that question in various ways, and the answers are all over the map. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been pouring over some recent polling, and she joins me to sift through what she's found. Danielle, welcome.


BLOCK: And let's start with a CNN poll that came out today. And it shows very solid support for the NSA data collection program. What are the numbers?

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah, 61 percent of Americans said Congress should renew the law allowing the NSA to collect that bulk phone data, and only 36 percent said that Congress should not renew it.

BLOCK: And here's what's kind of puzzling because I was looking at a Pew Research Center poll taken last year - seems to show virtually the opposite results. They were asking people if they feel there are adequate limits on what telephone and Internet data the government can collect. So a very different question, but what did they find?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. They found that 65 percent said no, there are not adequate limits on what the government can collect. Only 31 percent said yes.

BLOCK: So how would you explain that those numbers are basically the inverse of what CNN found?

KURTZLEBEN: I think what you can see in this is people trying to weigh two very desirable things against each other. People like their privacy. They want their privacy, understandably. People like security. They don't want to have to think about or worry about the threat of terrorism, and they want that as well. And trying to weigh one against the other is very difficult, and different surveys show different things on this.

BLOCK: And what's clear in all of this, Danielle, is that how these questions are framed has everything to do with the results. There are trigger words that will lead to a very different response.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. How you word the question can heavily influence how people respond to the question. So, for example, in a 2007 study, researchers at the University of Connecticut found that when they gave a very benign description of the Patriot Act, simply saying it allows the government to collect data in an attempt to stop terrorism, people were more likely to support it, as opposed to when the researchers said that the Patriot Act allows the government to search homes, to look at library records, that sort of thing. In that case, people were much less likely to support the act. Pew studied this in 2013 when they included the phrase terror with respect to government surveillance, you know, saying the government surveillance is used to try to thwart terrorism. That did make people much more likely to support that kind of government surveillance.

BLOCK: There was something else that was interesting in that Pew study, which was the finding that more people know about these programs, the more concerned they are about the limits, which made me think, probably, the people who are most concerned about it make it their point to know a whole lot about these programs.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. You can see it going either way. You can see that, you know, it is possible that people learn more about the law, learn more about the sorts of surveillance the government can do, and say, wow, I don't really approve of this. Or you - yes, like you said, you can also see people saying, man, I really don't like the sound of this, looking more into it, and it reinforces their point of view. So it's hard to tell the causality on that one.

BLOCK: What about generational differences, Danielle? Younger people - are they responding to these questions about privacy and surveillance in a very different way?

KURTZLEBEN: According to the CNN poll that came out today, they certainly seem to be. Now, we said earlier that, you know, a little over 60 percent of people in this poll said they approved of these surveillance measures. But people aged 18 to 34, only half of them approved of it, whereas people aged 65 and up, 71 percent of them approved of it. And that approval grows with the age group in that poll almost linearly. It's pretty incredible. And so it makes you wonder about what really is affecting these views here. You know, a lot of these younger adults - you can imagine someone who is 20 years old was quite young at this point, when 9/11, the events that precipitated the Patriot Act, happened. And so you can see how maybe those people would have a much different lens through which to view these sorts of things.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. She covers politics for us here. Thanks so much.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

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