Why the feds can spy on the public: People want it

Seal of the U.S. Counterterrorism Center, intelligence, spying, intel, spy agencies AP Photo

(MoneyWatch) The media may treat the stories of Edward Snowden and federal government spying as a series of shocking revelations, but the public may have different ideas. According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post, most people support the communications data collection and a sizable minority thinks the program doesn't go far enough.

All that said, there are some significant problems with the poll. The phrasing of questions could be introducing bias into the answers by presupposing a level of immediate threat that may or may not exist.

According to the poll, 62 percent of people questioned said the government should investigate possible terrorist threats even if that intrudes on personal privacy. About 34 percent said that the government should not intrude on personal privacy even if it limits the ability to investigate threats, while 4 percent had no opinion.

When it came to the National Security Agency tracking telephone calls of millions of Americans, 56 percent of people thought the activity was acceptable, while 41 percent said it was not and 3 percent had no opinion.

There was a shift when asked if the government should be able to monitor everyone's online activities, including email, to prevent future terrorist attacks. A majority, 52 percent, said that it should not, while 45 percent said that it should and 3 percent had no opinion.

Finding the right phrasing

However, the phrasing of the questions, one of the most common ways that bias enters polls, could have potentially skewed the answers. Here are three of the questions in full:

What do you think is more important right now - (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

Do you think 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?

In the first question, the term "possible terrorist attacks" conveys the sense of concern about specific suspected terrorist plots. It does not include the possibility that data about people not involved in illegal activity could be collected or that a program might overstep its bounds.

The second question does stress that data is being collected on millions of Americans, but not that at least one telephone company, Verizon, has been ordered to provide data on every single phone call going through its systems every day, whether those calls are between the U.S. and another country or completely within the U.S. So, it fails to convey the scope of the operations.

The third question, the only one in which a majority thought that broad activity might be unwise, is also the one in which the phrasing has the least potential bias.

Few pay attention

Another part of the poll shows that even with extensive coverage both online and in traditional media, many people are not paying attention to the issue. When asked how much attention they paid to the Verizon phone records reports, 48 percent said that they followed the story fairly closely or very closely. But 52 percent said that they followed it "not too closely" or "not at all closely."

Regarding collecting emails and other online information about American Internet service providers, the split was roughly 50-50.

Even in these questions there is some potential bias in the structure. The difference between "not too closely" or "not at all closely" is vague. The questions also effectively use a four point scale, which means that people who would likely find themselves in the middle have to jump to one side or the other, shifting the apparent balance of response.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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