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

Jun 1, 2015
Originally published on June 2, 2015 6:30 pm

Three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act expired Sunday night, ending — among other things — the government's ability to collect bulk metadata on Americans' phone calls and emails.

The fight pits Sen. Rand Paul and other legislators fighting for greater privacy against fellow Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and others who are in favor of extending the legislation as is. But if the lawmakers are looking to their constituents for direction, they might not get much help.

Fully 61 percent of Americans said they approve of renewing the Patriot Act's provisions to allow for continued collection of phone data, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Monday, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

But, just months ago, a Pew Research Center survey showed that two-thirds of Americans said they believed there aren't "adequate limits" on the kinds of phone and Internet data the government can collect from them. That survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

What's going on? It's impossible to know why these particular polls came out showing conflicting attitudes, but we do know that survey respondents' views on government surveillance can swing widely depending on how the question is asked. Pew studied this in 2013, when it asked the question a number of different ways. When Pew mentioned terrorism, people were significantly more likely to support government collection of data than not.

In addition, political scientists in a 2007 study asked people whether they supported or opposed the Patriot Act, but they described the act differently in each question. In one, they were vague, saying the Patriot Act makes it easier for the government to collect information on Americans. In others, the surveyors explained how the act allows for searches of homes, as well as library and hospital records. Respondents were far less likely to support the law when those provisions were described.

That provides a new lens through which to look at these sorts of surveys. It's possible that when asked about a specific law that was created to thwart terrorism, people felt more supportive, but that they also generally support the idea of less government intrusion into their lives.

So even while many Americans may worry about their privacy, these sorts of experiments also show how much tension there is between security and privacy for Americans. It's difficult to weigh one against the other when you want both.

One thing that is known is that these views vary by age. The CNN poll found that only half of people ages 18 to 34 believe Congress should renew the NSA's ability to collect phone data. But as one goes up the age spectrum, approval of Patriot Act renewal also climbs — 71 percent of people over 65 approve of renewing the act.

Lots of factors could be at work here — millennials grew up online, for example, and may feel more acutely how much of their information is out there to be gathered. Many of them also were quite young when Sept. 11 happened; when the events that precipitated the Patriot Act are barely memorable, it might make renewing it seem less pressing.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Thank you.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.