The National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs have proven extremely controversial, but the jury is out on whether they're popular. A Pew Research/Washington Post survey released yesterday found that 56 percent of Americans supported one aspect of the NSA’s efforts: getting court orders to track telephone calls. That was enough for many media outlets to declare that the public supports NSA surveillance, but the poll didn’t ask about the NSA’s far more expansive Internet-surveillance program, PRISM.
The Pew/Post poll did hint, though, that the public might not support PRISM—which includes email snooping—as much as the NSA’s collection of phone records, which does not involve eavesdropping. Pew asked whether Americans thought the “the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks,” and found that 52 percent were opposed, compared to 45 percent in support. That’s a net-22 points less support than that for the NSA’s phone program, which was opposed by 41 percent of respondents.
Forty-five percent isn’t a small number, but it’s far less than the 62 percent who think it’s most important to investigate terrorist threats, “even if that intrudes on personal privacy.” The wide gap hints at the controversial character of the NSA’s program: It can be inferred that more than a quarter of Americans who think investigating terrorism trumps privacy in principle are troubled by expansive Internet surveillance in practice. But broad public support for combating terrorism, even at the expense of privacy, means that even intrusive surveillance programs, like PRISM, are unlikely to attract overwhelming opposition.
Nate Cohn is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter @electionate.