Publicized information on the U.S. government’s PRISM program has created a new debate on security. The debate is broadly one between national security and individual security, specifically a right to privacy. While Americans want terrorist acts prevented, they also want the government not to collect information on them. The biggest question is, if programs like PRISM work then why stop them?
Early in 2013, a Gallup poll revealed that the majority of respondents (67%) felt satisfied with the nation’s security from terrorism. That number increased from the 53% noted in 2007, the year that PRISM started. A recent Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans disapprove of government surveillance programs. This poll was taken after reports of the PRISM program were published.
Former President George W. Bush defended PRISM and stated that “civil liberties were guaranteed” in the program. President Obama also defended the program as necessary to combat terrorism. National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander stated that PRISM prevented 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and over 50 “potential terrorist events” abroad. While these statements support the idea that the surveillance program is legal and effective, most Americans still reject them. Why?
One reason is that Americans do not understand how the internet and cellular phones have changed the nature of surveillance activities. The old protocols of following people, tapping into phone lines, and taking pictures have changed. Today, terrorists can communicate instantaneously through email or cellular phones. The accounts can be created, changed, or closed just as quickly as the information is transmitted. Governments need to modify their methods since the criminals and terrorists have changed theirs.
Another reason is that Americans prefer to be “people-savvy” and not “tech-savvy.” The idea that America can negotiate with terrorists by finding common ground doesn’t make sense. Terrorists, and criminals for that matter, don’t care about building rapport. Instead, they care about winning whether that is destroying an ideology or emptying a bank account. Maybe the Transportation Security Administration can create a “terrorists only” line at airports to help identify people who should be monitored. Until that happens or works, technological surveillance can help protect this nation.
A third reason may be that Americans do not trust their government. Almost 50% of Americans disapprove of President Obama’s performance. The disapproval rate for Congress is even worse at 78% of those polled. Americans may be fed up with Obama and his “trust me” rhetoric, or may be tired of a dysfunctional Congress. While testimony about PRISM may factual, Americans may not believe nor care that it works.
The final analysis is that most Americans are more worried about their privacy than national security. Those concerns are not as important as protecting the nation from terrorism. If “Big Brother” is watching then it is a good thing. Preventing terrorism in the U.S. is more important than wondering if anyone cares about your internet or cellular phone activities.