Americans support more limits on spy programs

As the Congress debates whether and how to rein in some of the government’s surveillance programs, lawmakers ought to consider this: a plurality of Americans disapprove of the programs and a large majority thinks the limits in place on them are insufficient.

Those attitudes were detailed in a report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center. The report detailed that contrary to conventional wisdom, a large majority of Americans think its important to keep their personal information private and secure. As I wrote in my column, the report has important implications for Silicon Valley companies and the tech industry more broadly.

But the report also has serious ramifications in Washington. With certain key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire next month, lawmakers are debating whether to let the law lapse or to reform a controversial part of it — Section 215 — that the government’s spy agencies have interpreted as authorizing widescale collection of citizens’ phone records. That interpretation, which was revealed in documents leaked by former security contractor Edward Snowden, was declared illegal earlier this month by an appeals court.

On Wednesday, Rand Paul led a filibuster in the Senate to block efforts to renew the Patriot Act without any revisions. The Pew report should give Paul and his allies confidence that their efforts are supported by the public at large.

The report indicates that some 65 percent of Americans think that the limits on “what telephone and internet data the government can collect” are inadequate. But among those who have heard a lot about the government’s surveillance programs, 74 percent thought there needed to be more limits on those programs.

Similarly, the survey indicated that 40 percent of Americans disapprove of the government’s surveillance programs. By contrast, 32 percent approve of them and 26 percent don’t know enough to have an opinion.

But if you look at just those who have heard a lot about those programs, 60 percent disapprove of them, while 36 percent approve.

Americans’ opinions about government surveillance also have implications for tech companies. Many support greater limits on the amount of time that private companies such as those that operate search engines, email sites and social networks, can retain information about their activities on those sites.

Between 60 and 75 percent of Americans think companies ranging from the retailers at which they shop to their cable companies to the online video sites they visit should only be able to retain records of their activities for a few months at most. In the case of online advertisers, 50 percent of Americans think they shouldn’t be allowed to retain any records at all.

Americans who have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs are even more strident in their views about data retention. Some 55 percent of those citizens think that social media companies shouldn’t retain any record of their activities, compared to just 35 percent of Americans who have heard only a little about government’s spying programs.

Similarly, 55 percent of those who have heard a lot about those programs think that search engine providers ought not be able to hold any records of their activities, compared to 38 percent who have heard only a little about those programs.

Documents provided to journalists Snowden showed that the agency was intercepting data stored and transmitted by Internet companies like Google and Yahoo. Those and other Internet companies have also voluntarily given access to their user data to the government’s spy agencies under a separate program.

Photo:  Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during his hours-long speech Wednesday made in opposition to efforts to renew expiring provisions of the Patriot Act (Senate TV via AP).


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