Danielle McMahan, 23, from Tampa, Florida, told me that while she acknowledges the potential usefulness of data collection, current surveillance tactics are flawed, and too hidden. “You don’t know exactly what’s being collected or when it’s being collected.”
These broadly negative attitudes hold true across party lines, and regardless of education level. Particularly concerned with the negative aspects of data collection were those with lower income levels. The upper and upper-middle classes, and those with a household income over $100,000, were relatively less worried about their personal data.
The results also showed a generational divide: Baby Boomers felt the most wary about personal-data collection (61 percent viewed it negatively), while the Silent/Greatest generation were the least concerned (42 percent), perhaps because they are least likely to be using technologies, like the Internet, where surveillance takes place. By contrast, 50 percent of Millennials and Gen Xers saw personal-data collection as negative.
How much were these same people willing to sacrifice their privacy for the safety of the country?
Overall, since 2013, more were willing to support some form of increased surveillance measure in order to protect national security. The proportion of respondents who didn’t support any surveillance measures whatsoever decreased, from 42 percent in 2013 to 24 percent in 2016.
Fifty-year-old William Smolar, a veteran, expressed a strong belief in the importance of the nation’s security—but balanced it with concerns about privacy. When it comes to government surveillance of individuals, Smolar told me, he has no problem if the individual is a legitimate suspect of a crime—“but if it’s an everyday citizen who’s going about their job and not causing any trouble, then I don’t think they should have to give up their right to privacy.”
“It’s a fine line,” Smolar said, “But I know there’s a way they can discern between someone who wants to do harm and someone who doesn’t.”
Race was a surprisingly deciding factor in how Americans felt about ceding privacy in the name of safety. Black respondents were more willing to support increased surveillance efforts across the board: 60 percent of blacks were willing to support increased camera surveillance of public places (versus 47 percent of whites). And 37 percent of blacks were willing to support increased Internet censorship (versus 22 percent of whites). A quarter of whites did not support any of the surveillance options, while only 9 percent of blacks opposed any form of additional surveillance.
Still as a whole, nearly half of all respondents were most willing to support increased camera surveillance of public places (up 8 percent from 2013), while 24 percent were most willing to support increased censorship of websites or decreased freedom to access sources on the Internet (up 6 percent from 2013). Only 16 percent of respondents were most willing to support government monitoring of cellphone and email activities.