Americans Disapprove of Government Surveillance Programs
Politics

Americans Disapprove of Government Surveillance Programs

Americans split on whether leaker did the right or wrong thing

PRINCETON, NJ -- More Americans disapprove (53%) than approve (37%) of the federal government agency program that as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism obtained records from U.S. telephone and Internet companies to "compile telephone call logs and Internet communications."

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These results are from a June 10-11 Gallup poll. Although the current survey context was different, these results are similar to those obtained in a May 2006 Gallup poll measuring support for a government program that "obtained records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans." In that survey, 43% approved and 51% disapproved.

There are significant partisan differences in views of the government's program to obtain call logs and Internet communication. Democrats are more likely to approve, by 49% to 40%. Independents (34% vs. 56%) and Republicans (32% to 63%) are much more likely to disapprove than approve.

In 2006, when Gallup asked the similar question about a program that came to light at that point, Republicans were significantly more likely to approve than Democrats. The differences in partisan reaction between 2006 and 2013 reflect the party of the president under whose watch the programs were carried out at those two points in time.

Twenty-one percent of Americans disapprove of the government's actions, but say there could be circumstances in which it would be right for the government to carry out such a program, yielding a combined total of 58% of all Americans who either approve or could theoretically approve under certain circumstances.

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A June 9-10 CBS News poll also found a majority (58%) of Americans disapproving of the government "collecting phone records of ordinary Americans." A June 6-9 survey conducted by Pew Research Center and The Washington Post found that 56% of Americans said a program in which the National Security Agency "has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism" was "acceptable." The combined 58% in the Gallup survey who either approve or say there might be circumstances in which such a program would be right is similar to the acceptable percentage in the Pew/Post wording.

Thirty-Five Percent of Americans Very Concerned About Violation of Their Privacy Rights

A separate question included in Gallup's survey found that 35% of Americans said they would be "very concerned" about violation of their own privacy rights if the government had computerized logs of their telephone calls or Internet communications. Another 22% said they would be "somewhat concerned."

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Sixty-four percent of Americans are following news about this issue very or somewhat closely, which is slightly above average for all news stories tested by Gallup over the past two decades.

Mixed Sentiment About the Leaker's Action

U.S. officials are engaged in a manhunt for Edward Snowden, the former U.S. government contractor who claimed to be the source of the leak. Americans break roughly even when asked if it was right (44%) or wrong (42%) for Snowden to share that information with the press.

A plurality of Republicans said he did the right thing in leaking the news of the surveillance programs, while a plurality of Democrats said he did the wrong thing.

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Americans are more positive about the media's actions in this matter, with 59% saying it was right for The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers to publish the information once they received it.

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Implications

Results from the Gallup poll indicate that Americans have somewhat flexible views about the government's surveillance program and/or that they are still forming their opinions on the issue. A majority of Americans say that they might find the type of government surveillance program that has come to light in recent days as acceptable under some circumstances, but less than half say they approve of the program as it stands.

The reactions to these types of government programs have remained constant over the past seven years, although Republicans and Democrats have essentially flipped their attitudes over that time period, reflecting the change from Republican President George W. Bush to Democratic President Barack Obama.

Americans are divided as to whether the self-confessed leaker, Edward Snowden, is a hero or a villain, while one-third of Americans fault the press for advancing the story.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 10-11, 2013, with a random sample of 1,008 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cellphone numbers are selected using random digit dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, cellphone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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