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Poll: Majority Of Americans Comfortable With Surveillance


It is no surprise that privacy advocates are deeply disturbed by the NSA's data collection. The ACLU has already sued the Obama administration. But the general public appears to feel less alarmed. One poll indicates a majority of Americans are comfortable with the NSA's surveillance. Still, many wonder what they can do to control their information. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, that is not easy.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Henry Sims(ph) is that rare person who reads every word of the long terms and conditions disclosure forms you encounter when you sign up for an online service. He says he's always done this on principle.

HENRY SIMS: The thing is, it's hard to know exactly how your data is being used. So it's not so much that I feel violated. It's more that I have a problem with it occurring systemically, so that I feel like it's important for people to resist as individuals.

NOGUCHI: This spring, when Wheaton College in Massachusetts switched its email and calendar system over to Google, Sims - then a student - objected. He says the contract allowed Google to access or transfer his personal information.

SIMS: Apparently I was the only student. No one is reading these terms of agreement.

NOGUCHI: Sims, who graduated last month, says the email workaround, ironically, involved him signing up for a Google Gmail account.

SIMS: That's part of one of the problems. There's not really that many free email services that you can use that are going to have ideal privacy terms and conditions.

NOGUCHI: Lorrie Cranor is a professor of computer science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She's studied public understanding of privacy controls on sites like Facebook, as well as software tools like Tor or Adblock Plus that allow people to anonymize their Web use.

DR. LORRIE CRANOR: There's extremely little knowledge among the general public.

NOGUCHI: Even, she says, among people who claim to care about protecting their information.

CRANOR: I think it becomes extremely difficult. There are definitely some tools that people can use that will help them reduce the number of digital footprints that they leave. But they're not convenient, and it's not clear that you would have 100 percent protection.

NOGUCHI: A company called Disconnect makes applications that prevent computer users' data from being collected by companies. Brian Kennish is a co-founder and a kind of Internet turncoat, having once worked for online ad company DoubleClick later purchased by Google.

BRIAN KENNISH: Essentially, these big companies - the Googles and Facebooks - are acting like honeypots for the NSA where they're just these troves of interesting data to be analyzed.

NOGUCHI: Kennish says the power of the digital trail alarmed him.

KENNISH: We're getting very close to tapping into people's real-time thoughts.

NOGUCHI: A majority of Americans seem to be at peace trading off privacy if it serves national security. According to a poll out this week from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 56 percent said they support the NSA's tracking of phone records. Eric Posner teaches at the University of Chicago. He never reads those disclosures.

ERIC POSNER: You can't read those things because they are too long and complicated, and I teach contract law.

NOGUCHI: He argues collection of data neither abuses the law, nor people's privacy.

POSNER: It's not spying. You know, we give out all this information. Simply the fact that the government has access to it is not a form of abuse.

NOGUCHI: He says the uncomfortable truth is that Americans cannot have both transparency about how their data is used and protect national security.

POSNER: The government says, quite reasonably, that if we had a public debate about these techniques, then the techniques would be rendered either ineffective or less effective. That's what makes it so hard. So, in the end, the public, in my view, really has no choice but to give a lot of trust to the secret court and the members of Congress who are paying attention and the executive branch.

NOGUCHI: Still, some say privacy is not just a matter of guarding against government surveillance. Kelley Misata erased all her online accounts and disappeared from the Web for nearly three years, after a man she briefly dated stalked her and sent defamatory messages to everyone she knew. She felt relieved when a friend told her...

KELLEY MISATA: You're a ghost on the Internet. I couldn't find you.

NOGUCHI: But, Misata says, she also found she couldn't function.

MISATA: It is impossible, absolutely impossible to live offline when you're looking for a job and you're trying to live as a normal member of society.

NOGUCHI: So Misata came back online. Now she works for Tor, a free privacy program that makes messages and Web searches anonymous. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.