Will NSA Data Mining Matter To Voters?

Will voters care about the revelations about NSA data mining? Signs point to no.

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The last week has seen more light cast upon the often shadowy activities of the National Security Agency than we have seen in quite some time. We’ve learned that the Agency continues to gather massive amounts of data related to phone records, Internet activity, and even credit card transactions, and it still isn’t clear what they are doing with it or who’s monitoring what they do. At the very least, we can expect Congress to take this matter up in hearings just as the IRS, the State Department, and the Justice Department have become the subject of investigation in recent months. Additionally, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald said today on This Week that there would indeed be additional revelations coming out of his investigation of the NSA in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the political tables have turned to some degree as we now see Republicans questioning the NSA activity that they supported during the Bush years and Democrats supporting actions that they decried when the President was a Republican.1  

Ultimately, though, all of the partisan back-and-forth is rather irrelevant. What really matters is what voters will think about this and, as Politico notes, there’s considerable evidence to believe that voters won’t be quite as outraged as those of us concerned with the civil liberties issues implicated by these reports would have hoped:

To hear the outrage, you’d think the public was in revolt that the government is reading their email and monitoring their phone calls.

In reality, the collective reaction was probably something closer to this: Meh.

And it’s probably why President Barack Obama won’t change the program and Republicans won’t make too much of a fuss.

Privacy is sort of like the deficit: In the abstract, voters rate it a serious concern. But drill down, and they don’t want to cut the entitlements that balloon federal spending — or end programs that have prevented terrorist attacks.

Especially if Americans don’t believe their own computers and phones are being monitored, they are willing to give the government a long leash, public opinion experts say.

“The outrage is coming from the people who write, but not the people who vote,” said Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategy Group, adding that the type of surveillance revealed this week is seen as “a necessary evil.”


Pew Research survey in 2011 found that only 29 percent favored “the U.S. government monitoring personal telephone calls and emails” in order to curb terrorism. But Pew found in another poll that 47 percent are more concerned government policies “have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country,” while only 32 percent said they were more concerned the government has gone “too far.”

“I wouldn’t want to minimize the concern over privacy at all because it’s definitely there. But at the same time, especially in the wake of Boston and the constant threat people are feeling … protection is foremost,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “In this general tradeoff, when push comes to shove … more people consistently since 9/11 said protecting the country is a greater concern than restricting civil liberties.”

Gallup senior editor Lydia Saad said voters generally support the government as long as it does not cross the line of actually collecting what’s being said in calls and emails.

“You might actually hit a raw nerve with the content element if that emerges as a key difference,” she said.

In speaking to voters last week, The New York Times found similar reactions, as well as a general sense that Americans have resigned themselves to the idea that the government is going to be following them around in the new digital world:

LOS ANGELES — The string of revelations over the past 48 hours about sweeping government surveillance of American telephone records and Internet activity by foreigners, including e-mail, stirred expressions of concern across the country on Friday — along with something of a collective national shrug.

It was not that people were not upset to learn that the government might be tracking their telephone calls, Facebook posts and Yahoo accounts. It was that in this age of “Homeland,” and in a culture that encourages people to share photos and minute-by-minute activities and opinions on public Web sites, the news that the government might be looking in too was often something short of a surprise.

“It stinks,” said Steve Talley, 64, a retired state worker in Mount Airy, N.C., a small, conservative town near the border with Virginia.

“I don’t mean to be cynical, but this is nothing new,” Mr. Talley said. “If people think the government hasn’t been monitoring whatever they want to, whenever they want to they are sorely mistaken.”

At the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, Cedric Hudson, 55, an unemployed machine technician, said he was resigned to these kinds of governmental intrusions.

“It doesn’t bother me because the government is going to do what they’re going to do regardless of what anyone thinks,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

In Atlanta, Mike Brooks, 65, a construction worker, said he lived his life assuming that he was being watched. “Anything and everything you say, they could be privy — that’s what I assume,” he said. “If you’re dumb enough to put this online, then it’s your stupidity.”

And Molly Flores, 28, a fashion designer walking in Midtown Manhattan, said she was neither surprised nor concerned by the surveillance.

“Personally, I have nothing to hide, so it’s not really affecting me,” she said. “It’s not like they’re invading my privacy. I worry about New York because it’s such a target.”

Jazz Shaw, meanwhile, passes on this anecdote:

I’ve been doing some business travel recently in the South and talking to some great guys who are definitely conservative in nature. One of them has been very outgoing in talking to me about gun control laws, a topic he was definitely following. This week, I broached the subject at hand, saying, “So, how about that NSA thing, huh?”

Almost without missing a beat he said, “That was over before it started, man. Ain’t nobody going to stop LeBron.”

This is an attitude that we’ve seen from the public regarding much of the power that the government has assumed since the September 11th attacks and, despite the fact that the article does go on to quote voters who are indeed quite concerned about these revelations, I suspect that it still reflects the way that most people view the issue even today.  While civil libertarians may hope that these revelations about the NSA would be the catalyst  for a renewed public focus on civil liberties and privacy, and a concern for the omnipresence of the state in our lives on a daily basis. In fact, I’m not sure there’s ever really been a time in recent history when civil libertarian ideas were shared by a significant portion of the American electorate. Back during the days when the Brennan Court was placing limits on the ability of the police to violate people’s Constitutional rights, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and other politicians on the right were quite successful in attacking those decisions on a so-called “law & order” platform. Since 9/11, fears of terrorism have been successfully exploited by the state to justify all kinds of intrusions on daily life, including those that people likely would have objected to outside of the context of the past twelve years. The idea that, all of a sudden, these NSA stories are going to change public opinion seems pretty unlikely to me, and that’s quite unfortunate to say the least.


1 To be fair, there are Republicans and Democrats on both sides of this issue, but there are also some rather obvious politics going on here, such as Democrats who seem to be spending more time attacking Glenn Greenwald than expressing concern about the nations of the NSA.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Policing, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Which of my civil liberties has been violated?

    How have I been harmed?

    The USG knows how long I spent on the phone and who I called. Okay. So?

    There’s a reason no one cares much.

  2. @michael reynolds:

    Yea! Let’s all just bow down to the omnipotent, omniscient state! Who cares about privacy and all that outdated stuff!

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    So again it’s scare quotes and bluster. I keep asking what should be a very simple question:

    So the USG knows who I call and what I look at online. How does that translate into an action that impinges on my freedom out here in the actual world?

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Lifting this from another thread, my question is very basic:

    A) They know who I call on the phone, leading inevitably to:

    What is ‘B?’

  5. anjin-san says:


    The notion of privacy we grew up with is gone. Personally, I regret it, but the world has changed.

    I was talking to a friend recently and asked him why he was not on Facebook. He said he had been mixed up in something in the 60s and had been “flying under the radar” ever since as a result.

    So I showed him how someone could get a picture of his house in 60 seconds on the internet. The expression on his face was interesting.

  6. @michael reynolds:

    Which of my civil liberties has been violated?

    Ah, the Cheney Defense.

  7. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    OK, how about this … your son is denied a student loan because his text messages matched the profile of previous defaulters.

    Would you ever know?

  8. john personna says:

    The IRS denies a business deduction for office and equipment because too many posts were made to OTB.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:
    And how does that differ meaningfully from what a school might have by Googling him?

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:
    Hah! Now they’d have a case there.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    No, it’s not important to most voters. Neither are taxes, wages, income inequality, gay rights, the environment, terrorism, or school shootings.

  12. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    In a panopticon world we might have more things like “credit score” which reduce broad behavior to a rank. Googling someone is a crude and probably interim method. Look for social media scoring in the future.

  13. stonetools says:

    Nope. But then Americans are supposed to care about unemployment more than anything else, yet they still elect Republicans.

  14. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Come with us sir, our facial recognition system tells us you are a person of risk …

  15. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yea! Let’s all just bow down to the omnipotent, omniscient state! Who cares about privacy and all that outdated stuff!

    Says Doug Mataconis, who voted for Bob McDonnell, a governor who wanted to take away a woman’s right to reproductive choice-a much greater invasion of privacy than anything the NRA had in mind. Can we say “trans vaginal probe”?
    When popular opposition to that stopped him, Doug’s hero signed this:

    WASHINGTON — Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a controversial mandatory ultrasound bill into law Wednesday afternoon, making Virginia the seventh state to require women to have an ultrasound procedure before they can legally have an abortion.

    Hey, but I’m sure Doug really cares about privacy-he just happens to vote for a candidate and a Party that supports the massive vi0lation of female privacy.

  16. al-Ameda says:

    This won’t matter at all, at least not in the sense of assigning partisan blame. This has been going on since the War in Iraq, and at the very least, since the second Congressional authorization of the Patriot Act. Both Bush and Obama have availed themselves of NSA Data Mining.

    The public now acts so “shocked” to know that this is happening – please, spare me the histrionics. Urge your representative to amend the Patriot Act to restrict these activities, and stop pretending to be surprised.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    This just demonstrates the selfishness and sociopathy of the American people knows (so far) no limits. So long as the bad stuff happens to someone else and they aren’t distracted from Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, there’s no violation of our liberties they aren’t ok with.

    You get the government you deserve.

  18. anjin-san says:

    @ Stonetools

    Hey, but I’m sure Doug really cares about his privacy


  19. steve s says:

    The only way congress is going to much care about this is if the NRA realizes that by analysing everyone’s emails, contacts, GPS movements, credit card transactions, etc, the NSA could trivially, trivially create a 98% accurate database of every american who owns a gun.

  20. Ben says:

    Wait a second though, how will we know whether this really matters to voters or not? It’s not like the people that DO care will have any sort of choice between a candidate that supports these programs and a candidate that is opposed to it. They’ll have a choice between candidates that all agree on this issue, so what will the election results tell us?

  21. LC says:

    @michael reynolds:
    You sure do have a lot of faith that this government or a future government won’t misuse the information.

    Let’s say you regularly call somebody who calls somebody who calls somebody who has a phone number the govt thinks belongs to a potential terrorist. So, govt agent backtracks to get all possible contacts and your phone number comes up. Because this is super secret, national security, save-the-nation-at-all-costs, they don’t bother with a little thing like a warrant, not that one would be hard to get in any case (has any court ever said no to any govt request?).

    And, because they can’t possibly take any risks with national security, they check to see if there is some way they can get to all the “contacts” in other countries. You, unfortunately, travel to one of those countries where the NSA has “contacts”. You get arrested, thrown into a third-world jail, and just disappear.

    If you don’t think this can happen to a U.S. citizen, you haven’t been paying attention.

  22. giantslor says:

    @Dave Schuler: I’m surprised you’re getting thumbs-up for this comment. The link you provided shows the RELATIVE importance people place on those issues, not the ABSOLUTE importance. Here are two surveys that provide the latter:


    In the Pew survey, 66% of registered voters said taxes were “very important” to their vote; 26% said “somewhat important.” 60% said “very important” for terrorism; 27% said “somewhat important.”

    In the Rasmussen survey, 61% of likely voters said taxes were “very important” to their vote.

    I bet if these surveys asked about the all issues you mentioned, you’d get a majority saying all of them are at least somewhat important.

  23. giantslor says:

    @LC: I’d bet that nearly everyone with a phone number is six degrees away from Osama Bin Laden. The government is smart enough to realize that the more degrees away, the more tenuous the connection. They’re not going to just burst into your house because you’re a customer of a dry cleaner of another customer who has a cousin who talked to Bin Laden once.

  24. stonetools says:


    You sure do have a lot of faith that this government or a future government won’t misuse the information.

    Actually I don’t. I have faith in the electoral system, which gives me the power to vote out this or any future government if it is shown that they actually do anything wrong.

  25. gVOR08 says:

    Will this matter to voters? I’ll be going through airport security Thursday. I will once again be reminded that American voters are sheep.

    But all those people at the NSA are true patriots. And handsome, too.

  26. fred says:

    Most voters have confidence in feds protecting our country and keeping their oaths. As for US contractors who get exhorbitant contracts from US govt and hire many incompetents with huge wages..their main purpose is to make US $s and they do not care a hoot in most cases about US security and safety. In fact, many hope for attacks so that can justify them keeping and getting more contracts from US govt. All these contracts should be canx, and our active duty military and CIA and FBI feds paid more and do those duties. They would do a much better job than contractors who are mostly concerned about making millions of US $s.

  27. Ben says:


    Actually I don’t. I have faith in the electoral system, which gives me the power to vote out this or any future government if it is shown that they actually do anything wrong.

    Only if there’s an alternative to vote for who agrees that they did anything wrong. Right now, I’m not seeing more than a handful of officeholders who have the balls to say this is wrong.

  28. wr says:

    @giantslor: “I’d bet that nearly everyone with a phone number is six degrees away from Osama Bin Laden. The government is smart enough to realize that the more degrees away, the more tenuous the connection. They’re not going to just burst into your house because you’re a customer of a dry cleaner of another customer who has a cousin who talked to Bin Laden once. ”

    Right. Because the government never never never never never never never attempted to destroy the lives of people who had once known other people who had joined the Communist party or even signed petitions against Fascism, and never never never never never never colluded with private industry to make sure those people were not allowed to work in the county.

    It could never happen. Never never never never never never.

  29. Caj says:

    I’d say most voters won’t give a flying fig over the NSA, IRS, Benghazi or any other stuff the GOP drama queens try have been trying so desperately to keep alive! All the majority of the people care about right now are jobs! Time wasting on repealing Obamacare for the umpteenth time and other useless crap! They will be seen for the obstructionists they are and I hope to God the voters kick those dumb jerks out of office!

  30. LC says:

    And how would you know they did something “wrong”? Or what if what they and a majority of voters think is right, like imprisoning war protesters, is something only a minority think is wrong? Voting won’t help.

  31. LC says:

    Again you have a lot of faith in government employees. I assume that every employee who targets a “terrorist” gets brownie points, maybe a bonus, the more they target, the more points they rack up.

    We send drones to foreign countries to kill young men who appear, maybe to be talking to possibly the wrong kind of people who might maybe one day plot against the U.S. We KILL them. We kill them and anybody who has the misfortune to be around them when the drone hits. There is nothing “targeted” about this, nothing “smart”, just somebody in a security agency got his bosses to agree that it would be a good thing to kill that person. We don’t know, often, who we killed. The government insists we haven’t killed “many” innocent men, women and children, and if you believe that you would probably have believed the kill counts in Vietnam.

    Over 250,000 people work for Homeland Security. Counting sub-contractors, a million or more? How many tens of thousands of security clearances of one kind or another? Do you honestly believe that every single one of them is competent, let alone honest? Do you honestly believe that adequate controls exist to prevent personal vendettas (an abusive husband or boyfriend)?

    And if the citizens of a so-called free democracy do not even have the right to know that such programs exist, what exactly is your definition of freedom? Senators on the Intelligence committee who have been concerned about these programs were forbidden to say anything. What kind of representative government is that?