A new Pew Research poll reveals the shifting scope of Americans’ expectations of privacy. (More)
Americans’ views of privacy have been surprisingly stable over the years, according to a new Pew Research poll. Since 2002, roughly two-thirds have agreed government should investigate terrorist attacks even if that intrudes on personal privacy.
Of course, the partisan makeup of that two-thirds has changed. In January 2006, fully 75% of Republicans believed NSA surveillance programs were acceptable, while 61% of Democrats and 55% of Independents disagreed. This month, only 51% of Republicans believe those programs are acceptable, while 64% of Democrats and 53% of Independents now agree. That probably reflects the respondents’ trust, or lack thereof, in the president at the time each poll was taken.
The Pew poll also found that our expectations differ on telephone records versus email monitoring. While 56% of Americans now believe it’s okay for the NSA to gather telephone metadata, only 45% are willing to accept NSA monitoring of their email. While Pew only began polling on telephone records this year, their 2002 poll found 45% willing to accept email monitoring. The same percentage as in 2013.
Younger Americans are the least willing to accept government intrusions on their privacy, but 51% of Americans aged 18-29 agree told Pew Research this month it was “more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy.” That percentage rose 63% for Americans aged 30-49, 67% for Americans aged 50-64, and 68% of Americans 65 and older.
This may reflect our shifting perceptions of personal privacy. I grew up in small towns where, as we used to joke, “If you ever forget what you’re doing, ask a neighbor.”
There weren’t many secrets in those towns. It was rude to peek in others’ windows, but it was almost as rude not to know who was out and about. Parents kept an eye on each others’ children. Innocent mistakes were usually ignored, but fights and other serious misdeeds were reported to our parents. Adults’ peccadilloes also quickly made the rounds. The threat of shame hovered over small town life like the sword of Damocles, and both parents and teachers warned of the cost of a bad reputation.
I’m not looking back with rose-colored glasses. The lack of privacy in those small towns had costs. I knew I was lesbian from earliest childhood, but I stayed in the closet. In those days, in those towns, PFLAG did not exist and schools had no LGBT student groups. I sometimes wonder which of my classmates harbored similar secrets. That I have never made any attempt to contact my classmates – despite social media having made that easy to do – may be the truest measure of my adolescent anxiety.
Those towns were also insular. My family moved often, and as new arrivals we were both welcomed and still outsiders. Helping a neighbor with yard work or shoveling their sidewalk after a snowstorm was more than merely neighborly. It was part of the price of admission into the community, lest you be labeled “stand-offish.”
Those years in those small towns shaped my personal expectations of privacy, but not everyone grew up in such towns or during those years. And as we discuss these issues, we should remember that each of us views personal privacy through the lens of his/her own experiences.
Our law should protect a “reasonable expectation of privacy” that balances both public and personal interests. That will never be cast in stone, and it will never precisely mirror every individual’s personal expectations. We didn’t all grow up at the same town, in the same time.