[October 30, 2013] – A survey of American, Canadian and British adults shows a majority applaud rather than condemn former CIA analyst and Edward Snowden’s leaks of mass government electronic surveillance, though the verdict is a very narrow one in his home country.
The three-country survey, which asked respondents about their attitudes towards Snowden’s actions, as well as their views on government surveillance, also indicates people distrust their national leaders to be good guardians of the information gathered or to restrict its use to national security purposes.
At the same time, respondents appear to accept the notion that security concerns justify some infringement on civil liberties.
In each country polled, at least 75 per cent of respondents described the issue of government surveillance of the public’s internet communications as “very” or “quite” important to them. (US: 77%, Canada: 78% UK: 82%).
Snowden is a highly controversial figure in his own country, with Americans split 51% to 49% when asked whether he is “something of a hero who should be commended for letting the public know that our governments are running electronic surveillance programs that threaten people’s privacy” or “more of a traitor who should be condemned for publicizing security activities and threatening western intelligence operations”. In Canada, 67% and in the UK, 60% of respondents say Snowden should be commended for his actions.
Asked to assume their national government is routinely conducting electronic surveillance of the general public, 60% of Americans and Canadians described this as “unacceptable”, while Britons were more split, (52% unacceptable versus 48% acceptable).
Safeguarding the Information
When asked whether they trusted their national government to be “a good guardian of citizens’ personal information”, 60 per cent of Americans and 64 per cent of Britons and Canadians said they had “not that much trust” or “no trust at all”.
At the same time, there appears to be public support for the argument that security and anti-terrorism efforts include tradeoffs on civil liberties and personal information privacy. Buy-in for this perspective is highest in the UK where 60 per cent took this view, compared with Americans (54%). Canadian public opinion is most evenly split on the issue (49% vs 51%).
Only one-in-five respondents believe information gathered by governments will be used for “strictly national security/anti-terrorism efforts” (US: 21%, UK: 19%, Canada: 18%).
The strong plurality view in each country is that the electronic information gathered via mass government surveillance will ultimately end up being used for “any purposes the government chooses”: 49% in the US, 46% in Canada, and 44% in the UK believe this to be the most likely scenario.
Only roughly one-in-five believe the info will be used for “strictly national security/anti-terrorism efforts” (21% in the US, 18% in Canada and 19% in the UK), while a larger number (close to a third in each country) believe it would be used for “that, and also other serious criminal matters (say, major organized crime).”
Appropriate use of Information
When asked how mass electronic surveillance information should be used by governments, a handful in each country opted for “any purposes the government chooses” (US & Canada: 5%, UK 7%). There was also no majority insistence that information gathered by government be used for “strictly security/anti-terrorism” purposes (US: 39% Canada: 31%, UK: 33%).
Strong Political Undercurrents in all three countries
In the US, Republicans are much more wary of mass e-surveillance than those who re-elected the Democrats last fall. Nearly 90 per cent of 2012 Republican supporters say they do not trust the Obama administration as good guardians of information whereas most Democrat voters say they do. Republicans are also much more likely to believe information would be used as the government sees fit.
In the UK, 2010 supporters of David Cameron’s Conservatives are most likely to consider mass e-surveillance activities as acceptable, to trust their government with the information, and to consider Edward Snowden more of a traitor than a hero. Both Labour and Liberal-Democrat supporters, meanwhile, consider Mr. Snowden more of a hero, and are much more wary of these surveillance activities generally, and much less trustful of their national government as information guardian.
In Canada, political differences are just as profound and are consistently observed across all the survey questions. The overall pattern sees Conservative supporters less wary than opposition party supporters. Those who elected Stephen Harper’s Conservatives put more credence on national security, most consider mass surveillance acceptable, and most say they trust this government as information guardian.
The other side of the continuum is New Democrat supporters who voice much more civil libertarian views, including support for Snowden. Those who voted for the Liberals in the 2011 election are in the middle on this debate, closer to NDP supporters than Conservatives supporters in their outlook.
On Oct 23rd 2013, Angus Reid Global conducted an online survey among 4,536 randomly selected American, British and Canadian adults who are members of the Springboard America, Springboard UK and Angus Reid Forum panels. 1,010 were surveyed in the US, 1,519 in Canada and 2,007 in the UK. The margin of error – which measures sampling variability – is +/- 3%.
Shachi Kurl, Vice President, Communications: 604.908.1693/Shachi.Kurl@angus.reid.com