Last week’s disclosures about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone and internet data, coupled with recent White House scandals, has many Americans asking themselves whether they can trust the government with their personal data, even that which they willfully post online. Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, are emerging into adulthood and like generations past are redefining where the balance between security and privacy should lie.
A CNN/TIME/ORC poll at the end of April, two weeks after the Boston bombing, showed that only 40% of Americans were willing to give up their civil liberties to fight terrorism, with 49% disagreeing. As the report explains, “While there was little partisan divide on this question, there was a generational gap.” Half of those over 50, but only 34% of those under 50, were willing to give up privacy for security. Contrary to intuition, the generation that is happy to post every detail of their lives online is unwilling to give up their privacy.
Ironically, 51% say they’ll share information with companies if they get “tangible benefits” in return. This suggests that although millennials are emerging into adulthood during the era of the War on Terror, we don’t believe that the security provided by the NSA’s surveillance is nearly as beneficial as coupons or retail deals.
While some may suggest that millenials are just unwilling to be intimidated by terrorism — with only one in five millennials saying they were less likely to attend large public events right after the Boston bombings — it may be that my generation just doesn’t think the threat posed by terrorism is significant enough to warrant surveillance.
“The instances where this has produced good — has disrupted plots, prevented terrorist attacks — is all classified, that’s what’s so hard about this,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. The public is faced with trusting the word of politicians who say that NSA surveillance is keeping us safe, but the lack of trust in these same politicians is undermining their word. Just 26% of millennials say they can trust the government “always” or “most of the time,” down from 44% in 2004.
Unless millennials trust the government, they will never be willing to give up private information to help with security … and that begins with transparency. A report by LifeWay Research shows that transparency was a major characteristic millennials wanted in a leader.
"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing," President Obama said in 2009. "My administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use." When 60% of millennials voted for Obama in 2012, they did not want transparency to come from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, but from the president himself.
In the 2016 presidential election millennials will account for one third of votes cast — twice as many as in 2008 — and will be looking for a candidate who can deliver long-overdue transparency. With bipartisan support for the NSA programs, millennials are turning to the few senators raising concerns that the government may have overstepped its bounds, including Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky).
Given Obama’s failure to demonstrate the value of the vast NSA programs surveilling phone and internet data, young people are growing increasingly distrustful of his government. The president will have to finally deliver on his promise of transparency if he wants our generation to make what very well may be a necessary sacrifice of privacy.