CBS Poll: 58% Disapprove of Collecting Ordinary Americans' Phone Records

CBS has released a new poll concerning the recent revelations on the government’s domestic surveillance efforts. The questions are better (from a quantitative perspective, not a propaganda perspective) than the WaPo/Pew poll which showed a relaxed attitude on civil liberties issues.  The CBS poll was conducted among 1015 adults from June 9-10. 

Some of the more notable findings are:

  • 58% disapprove of the federal government collecting phone records of ordinary Americans, while 75% approve of the records being collected of those who are suspected of terrorism. 
  • 59% have some level of concern about government efforts to fight terrorism infringing on their privacy rights

What is important to see is the difference between the the WaPo/Pew Questions and the CBS questions.  This is a lesson on how survey questions can influence poll results.

WaPo/Pew: 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?

CBS: In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, do you approve or disapprove of federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans?

In the first instance, the question does not allow a distinction between those under suspicion of terrorism and “ordinary” Americans, forcing the respondent to choose between fighting terrorism with surveillance on everyone or doing nothing at all– presumably allowing the slaughter of innocent people as terrorists run rampant in the American streets.  In the second (CBS) there is that difference and the result is more heartening about attitudes toward privacy rights. (It’s still too low in my opinion, but that is a post for another day.)

The result of this semantic trickery is that WaPo/Pew can say more than half (56%) approve of the government obtaining their call records, whereas according to CBS,we find that 58% disapprove of the government snooping on their call records. Those findings are diametrically opposed!

Another notable element of the CBS poll is the partisan breakdown.  To be honest, no one cares about political surveys among adults, we only care about what likely voters think, so I am going to guess that these numbers would favor the civil liberty position more if this was a likely voter survey.

Republicans and Independents are twice as likely to be concerned with losing their privacy. Only 16% of Democrats are very concerned, while one-third of all Republicans and Independents are.  Putting on my strategist hat, this is a good issue for civil liberty minded GOP candidates to take notice of. 


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