When the Washington Post published the results of a Pew Research poll on the subject last month, it concluded that most Americans (56%) accept NSA data collection, even at the expense of privacy, as a defense against terrorism. But it didn't characterize its 1,004 survey respondents as ignorant about computer security.
Stu Sjowerman, CEO of security training firm KnowBe4.com, did so indirectly. He posed the same survey questions, via SurveyMonkey, to more than 1,500 IT professionals — people who do understand computer security — and came to the opposite conclusion. In Sjowerman's survey, some 70% said the NSA's actions were unacceptable, compared to 41% in the Washington Post-Pew survey.
[ Learn more about the role major companies have in NSA surveillance. Read Microsoft Helped NSA Siphon Hotmail, Skype User Data. ]
Sjowerman, in a phone interview, said he decided to replicate the Post-Pew survey because he "didn't think that people really understand the implications [of the NSA's data gathering], especially long term."
There are two major issues. "One, if you do this kind of dragnet long-term," said Sjowerman, "you're creating a profile of everyone in the U.S. That is totally, as far as I'm concerned, violating the Fourth Amendment. Two, the U.S. government doesn't have a very good record of keeping everything secure. There will be data breaches."
Some 654 respondents offered a written explanation of their thoughts on the matter. Their answers for the most part echo Sjowerman's views.
"Too many law enforcement agencies have demonstrated they cannot be trusted and often put themselves above the law to achieve their goals," said respondent #4. "Those goals are not always in the best interests of citizens, but more often seem to favour large corporations or the rich and powerful."
Respondent #231 wrote, "Law enforcement officials do have a legitimate need to access some private information and communication, but such access must always be authorized beforehand by a properly executed warrant, limited to a very specific scope and duration, conducted under the oversight of the judge who issued that warrant, and cannot be done off record under a veil of secrecy. The rights of the people must not be trampled under a stampede towards security."
There are other viewpoints too, some who gladly surrender their privacy for what they perceive as security and others who see negligence in the intelligence community and its contractors for allowing Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old fugitive whistleblower responsible for exposing the scope of the NSA's activities, access to so much information.
But the takeaway here is that all surveys are not created equal. It's doubtful anyone would seek surgical advice from bar patrons, parachuting instruction from preschoolers or nautical knowledge from those who shun the sea. Asking average Americans their views on NSA data collection just isn't good enough. Some domain experience is necessary to reach an informed conclusion.
And not all questions are created equal. Consider this question, posed both by Pew and Sjowerman: "As you may know, it has been reported that 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. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?"
The problem is that once you throw "terrorism" into the mix, the discussion ends. Only terrorists support terrorism, right? But as others have noted, the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is extremely low. Reason in 2011 put it at one in 20 million, noting that in the past five years a person would be four to five times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a terrorist. (The recent Boston bombing may have shifted the odds a tiny bit.)
Would the average American be as accepting of the NSA's data gathering if the stated reason were to protect people from a bolt from above? Or imagine a much more hostile U.S. administration. Recall that President Nixon kept an enemies list. With the data squirreled away on NSA servers, imagine what one could do.
Then again, imagination is the real problem here. We imagine a fearful world. We might be better served if we imagined less and listened more to people with real-world privacy experience. To understand the relationship between security and privacy, we should pay more attention to IT professionals and spend less time asking loaded questions. We can find a balance without throwing away the Constitution.