For all the attention generated by the controversy over Edward Snowden’s disclosures of U.S. spying operations, much of the public has paid little attention to the details of the policy debate over government surveillance, polls have shown.
The latest evidence comes from a new Pew Research Center poll showing that half the public said they had heard nothing at all about President Obama’s speech Friday outlining new restrictions on the National Security Agency. Only 8% of those surveyed said they had "heard a lot" about Obama’s plans.
Of those who said they had heard at least a little bit about the speech, the overwhelming majority said they thought the president’s plans would have little impact either on protecting privacy or on hindering the government’s fight against potential terrorist plots. About 1 in 5 said Obama’s plans would increase the protection of individual privacy and about 1 in 8 said it would make fighting terrorism more difficult.
The poll echoed other surveys in showing that the public has grown more disapproving of the NSA’s surveillance program. By 53% to 40%, Americans said they disapproved of "the government’s collection of telephone and Internet data as part of anti-terrorism efforts." In July, a Pew poll showed the public approving of the programs by a narrow margin. By 48% to 41%, the public said that current limits on what the government collects are not adequate.
Democrats are more inclined than Republicans to say they approve of the NSA’s efforts. Republicans who say they consider themselves tea party supporters are particularly negative, disapproving of NSA surveillance by 68% to 27%. That division likely reflects the fact that on virtually all measures, partisans tend to trust government more when their party controls it. Another significant division on the question involves age: Americans younger than 30 are particularly likely to disapprove of what the NSA does.
Asked about Snowden, Americans offered somewhat contradictory opinions. The public is almost equally divided on the question of whether Snowden has served or harmed the public interest, with Americans younger than 30 significantly more inclined to see his actions positively while those over 65 see them negatively.
By 56% to 32%, Americans said they thought the government should pursue a criminal case against Snowden. Those under 30 divided evenly on the question, while all other age groups supported prosecution by large margins. Even those who said they disapproved of the NSA’s surveillance programs split evenly on the question of whether Snowden should be prosecuted for revealing them.
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