False Dichotomies: A Closer Look at the Pew Poll on Government Surveillance

The Washington Post in conjunction the Pew Center, have released a new poll about government surveillance that is making the rounds today.  The results are alarming from a civil liberties perspective:

  • 62% say the government should investigate terrorist threats regardless of privacy intrusion (the other option is no privacy intrusion no matter what)
  • 56% say that tracking millions of call records is acceptable in the effort to investigate terrorism (the other option is that tracking millions of call records no matter what is unacceptable)
  • 45% say the government should be able to monitor email and online activities to prevent future terror attacks (the other option is that it is unacceptable)

These questions are a little misleading, the respondent is being forced to choose between a false dichotomy in each one.  The situation we have on our hands isn’t simply the choice between MONITOR EVERYBODY and MONITOR NOBODY.  We can certainly monitor people who are suspicious.  Why force people to choose between pure safety and pure privacy? 

By offering more granular (and realistic) options, respondents aren’t force to choose one at the exclusion of the other.  Citizens can retain their privacy if the government restricted it’s surveillance to those who gave cause for alarm. 

Alas, more robust options might not provide the nice talking point for the media to “demonstrate” the public is “ok” with excessive privacy invasion. 

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