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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Maybe We Aren't so Supportive of the Surveillance State

If the recent Pew poll on the NSA's PRISM program showed a disappointing support for an unprecedented level of domestic surveillance, a new CBS News poll offers cheering disagreement with it. Where the Pew survey found 53% found tracking phone data to investigate terrorism "acceptable," CBS's numbers are much more what you'd hope for from Americans.

In the wake of the recent disclosure of two classified U.S. surveillance programs, most Americans disapprove of the government collecting the phone numbers of ordinary Americans, but approve of its monitoring those suspected of terrorist activity, according to a new CBS News poll.

Seventy-five percent of Americans approve of federal agencies collecting the phone records of people the government suspects of terrorist activity, but a 58 percent majority disapproves of this type of data collection in the case of ordinary Americans.

Majorities of Republicans and independents oppose the government collecting phone records of ordinary Americans; Democrats are divided.
To too many of my fellow liberals, I say pull your heads out of your butts. The concern isn't over who is weilding the power, but that the power exists. If you trust the Obama administration to use this data wisely, that's one thing. But would you have the same trust in overly ambitious liars and cutthroat demagogues like you might find in a Ted Cruz administration or a Scott Walker administration? The potential for abuse is so great and so simple that this program simply should not exist. There's nothing but a thin shred of law -- and no oversight, you don't actually have to prove anything to the court -- that would stop a president from using his data-collection powers to blackmail political enemies or read the emails of of his election opponents' campaign teams.

Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, put it well; "It's the sort of power that if you give it to a corrupt government, you give them the ability to stay in power forever."

So get your hypocrisy under control, recognize that this is about the program, not the executive, and get your ass back over on the right side of history.


So which poll is more accurate? It's hard to say. CBS has a margin for error of three points plus or minus, while Pew has a margin of 3.7%. CBS is more confident in their rsults that Pew, but a 0.7% difference is getting pretty nitpicky. Looking at past performance doesn't tell us much either. After the 2012 election results were in, CBS News/New York Times was off 1.1 points on average, Pew was off 1.5. So not much of a difference there, either. I don't have Nate Silver-type stat skills, so the best I can tell you is you're going to have to wait for more data. Will the next poll back up Pew or CBS?

For all the reasons I've already listed, you've got to root for CBS. Americans should not be comfortable with this and if the CBS numbers are correct, we're still too comfortable with it. I'd want somewhere in the 75-80% category, where the only holdouts are the lunatic 20% who are always on the wrong side of popular results. 58% is close to 60 -- in fact, given the margin for error it could be 60 -- which is about the low end of where I'd like to see the numbers. Ending this program should be expanded background checks-level popular.

Because it has to end. The claim that it might stop a terrorist attack does not make it worth the price. I have a plan that would guarantee no future terrorist attacks in America: lock everyone up in a maximum security prison forever. If you think that idea is insane, then we agree on the principle if not on degree. There are some things that are just going too far, even if -- as my modest proposal would -- they could absolutely guarantee an end to terrorism. Can we agree that some things go too far that could not make that guarantee?

And, as the Boston Marathon tragedy demonstrates so well, the PRISM program -- as incomprehensively huge and mind-bogglingly far-reaching as it is -- cannot make that guarantee. Meanwhile, it makes our democracy vulnerable to corrupt hacks, opportunists, and ideologues. Again, it's not about the person in the White House, it's a about a power that person shouldn't have, no matter who they are. It puts our democracy at risk and if we sacrifice democracy for protection from terrorists, what would we have left worth protecting?


[photo via Wikimedia Commons]

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