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Poll: Public doubts rise on surveillance, privacy

By Stephen Braun 
and Jennifer Agiesta
Associated Press

WASHINGTON: Following disclosures about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs, a majority of Americans believe the U.S. government is doing a poor job of protecting privacy rights, according to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Close to 60 percent of Americans oppose the NSA’s collection of data on telephone and Internet usage. A similar majority opposes the legal process supervised by a secret federal court that oversees the government’s classified surveillance.

The American public is still anxious about terrorism as the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches. About 6 in 10 Americans feel it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice rights to confront terrorism.

But suspicions about the government’s promises to protect civil liberties have deepened since 2011. Only 53 percent now say the government does a good job of ensuring freedoms, compared with 60 percent two years ago.

The shift in public attitudes follows a three-month barrage of leaks to media organizations by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who released secret documents about the surveillance agency’s inner workings.

In follow-up interviews after the poll, some respondents described Snowden as a criminal and an attention-seeker. Others called him a whistleblower. But many agree that his disclosures have highlighted the once-remote issue of surveillance.

“It’s not surprising this was going on, but I think all these revelations brought it home to people,” said Sam Thomas, a former musician from Knoxville, Tenn. “This is the eroding of American rights as we used to know it.”

Not until Snowden’s leaks was the massive NSA trawling — of domestic telephone numbers, and their calling patterns, and the agency’s collection of Americans’ Internet user names, IP addresses and other metadata swept up in surveillance of foreign terror suspects — confirmed and detailed. The new poll sought to measure the public’s views on the revealed NSA activities, and it also tracked Americans’ shifting opinions over time.

President Barack Obama has sought to reassure Americans that the government’s data collection does not extend to the contents of their phone calls and text messages. “Nobody is listening to your phone calls,” he said after the first wave of disclosures in June. He added: “They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content.”

But a majority of Americans appear doubtful. Some 56 percent oppose the NSA’s collection of telephone records for future investigations even though they do not include actual conversations. And 54 percent oppose the government’s collection and retention of Internet metadata for future investigations that avoids actual email contents; only 34 percent favor such efforts.

Even stronger majorities oppose unauthorized government surveillance of phone calls and Internet mail traffic within the U.S. As many as 71 percent do not want officials eavesdropping on U.S. phone calls without court warrants; 62 percent oppose collection of the contents of Americans’ emails without warrants.

The AP-NORC Center survey was conducted Aug. 12-29, 2013, by NORC at the University of Chicago. It involved landline and cellphone interviews in English or Spanish with 1,008 adults nationwide.