Boston Marathon Bombing

New Poll Shows Most Americans Support Public Surveillance

|

Credit: Silver Spoon

The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll reveals the disturbing attitudes many Americans have towards surveillance post-Boston Marathon bombings.

Some highlights:

  • 78 percent think that surveillance cameras are a good idea.
  • Only 20 percent think that the government has gone too far restricting civil liberties while fighting terrorism. 26 percent don't think the government has gone far enough.
  • 24 percent think that an attack on the U.S. in the coming months is "very likely." 

All of these figures should worry civil libertarians. It is stunning that after the PATRIOT Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that 26 percent of Americans think that the government has not restricted our civil liberties enough in the name of fighting terrorism.

It is also concerning that 24 percent of American adults seem to think that more attacks are "very likely" in the coming months, especially given that terrorism is very rare in the U.S. Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey did some calculations on the chance of someone in the U.S. being killed in a terrorist attack in September 2011:

In 2010 (the latest report), 15 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks; nine died in 2009; 33 in 2008; 17 in 2007; 28 in 2006; and 56 in 2005. The vast majority of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks died in the war zone countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. So the sad tally of Americans killed by terrorists around the world since 2005 comes to a total of 158, yielding an annual rate 16 Americans killed by terrorists outside of the borders of the United States.

Taking these figures into account, a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

Terrorist attacks are disturbing, tragic, and horrible, but they are very rare. It's a shame that such rare events are capable of not only allowing many people to ignore facts and overestimate their chances of being killed in a terrorist attack, but that they also allow for people to be more sympathetic to civil liberties being restricted. Reason contributor Garrett Quinn, who was in Watertown, Mass. during the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, could not find a single Watertown resident who was uncomfortable with being told to stay inside while the hunt for Tsarnaev took place. 

NEXT: Total Surveillance May Be Malevolent, But It's Definitely Creepy

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Considering that surveillance cameras were very effective at catching the (alleged) Boston Bombers, this isn’t surprising.

    I wish camera afficianados would admit one thing: surveillance cameras don’t prevent crime, they just make it easier to bust people after it’s occurred.

    1. No, only stop-and-frisk prevents crime.

      -Bloomberg

    2. surveillance cameras don’t prevent crime, they just make it easier to bust people after it’s occurred.

      …which deters people from committing crimes in areas where there are cameras. We could quibble over the definition of “prevent” but I don’t think the deterrence effect is even arguable.

      1. It might deter some level of crime. Just like a warrantless house-to-house search would probably reduce crime.

        The point being, that there are lots of liberty-violating things that would arguable reduce crime. But is it a condition under which we want to live?

        1. Not sure how much of an concession to my point you’re making in the first sentence, but in any case you’re begging the question; it hasn’t been demonstrated that surveillance in public spaces is liberty-violating.

          1. Has it been demonstrated that an increase in surveillance cameras reduces crime?

          2. In the United States, one of the most prominent examples was Tampa’s use of facial recognition technology in 2001. But the city’s police department dropped the technology two years later when it failed to result in a single arrest. The use of video surveillance was considered by the Oakland, Calif., police chief, but he ultimately found that “there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime.”

            “They are good forensic tools ? after something happens, they’ll tell you what happened,” said Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute. “And in the rare case where a terrorism case fails, they can be useful to help track down the perpetrators. But they do not provide protection against attacks, and that’s a key distinction.”

            “We are not safer from terrorism with security cameras in our cities,” said Harper. “Particularly terrorists who are willing to die, security cameras do not control their behavior. They would not stop them from planning to pull off an attack.”

          3. Effective at Documenting Crime, Less Effective at Reducing It

            But have they been effective at cutting crime?

            According to a British Home Office review of dozens of studies analyzing the cameras’ value at reducing crime, half showed a negative or negligible effect and the other half showed a negligible decrease of 4 percent at most. Researchers found that crime in Glasgow, Scotland, actually increased by 9 percent after cameras were installed there.

            Link.

            1. If you hadn’t just said this, I would have. I just got done with my criminology course, and that was the general thrust of studies on CCTV camera surveillance. Aside from a few crime hot-spots (parking lots, for instance), cameras don’t deter crime from happening, because the location of most crime is not predetermined. Criminal actions initiated on the spur of the moment (most crime) won’t be deterred by cameras.

          4. but in any case you’re begging the question; it hasn’t been demonstrated that surveillance in public spaces is liberty-violating.

            Regarding this, my question-begging pales in comparison to the question-begging implicit in the enactment of a pan-camera society. Get it, pan camera? Never mind.

            It’s not that much of a stretch to say that a society that records and watches your every public move violates some basic tenets of liberty.

            The only way we assume that a camera-rich environment doesn’t violate out privacy is to believe on its face (in no particular order)

            1. Your movements are watched by dispassionate viewers who have no connection or knowledge of the viewee.
            (please count the numbers of illegal records accesses which occur by police officers checking up on ‘hot chicks’ they encounter during the job)

            2. Your movements and places frequented, while perfectly law abiding, provide no possible pathway for embarassment should those records of your movements become public, either accidentally or maliciously.

            3. Officials don’t retain permanent records of your movements.

            4. Cameras, being a leveraging and extension of the beat officer, we would have no problem being followed by an individual officer if society were physically and economically able to apply 1 officer per civilian. If we wouldn’t accept an officer following you around during your daily travels, why do we accept a camera doing the same?

            1. Excellent post, Paul.

              Thus, even when viewed through an utilitarian lens, video surveillance sucks at preventing crime.

          5. Fun prank by individual who became dismayed at the pervasive use of cameras in England.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fyj6SIz_Yhs

            1. Excellent dry British humour at 2:48.

  2. This is very sad. But I think the privacy advocates have totally lost the culture war on this. We live in a world where very mainstream respectable people are happy to put their sex tapes on the internet, where people will happily air their most private thoughts and foibles to the world just so they can be on TV.

    To have privacy, people have to respect and value privacy. To respect and value privacy, you have to have a reason to want to keep things private and that is generally a sense of shame and decorum. Well, we have spent the last fifty years destroying any sense of shame and decorum in this country. And now Libertarians, who cheered that on, are shocked that people don’t value their privacy anymore. Well why should they? What they have to hide?

    1. It’s true that people voluntarily give up a lot of privacy. But a lot of people don’t.

      I’m not all that concerned about privacy. If people want it, they can generally find it or make it happen. I’m concerned about government snooping, which is a separate issue.

      1. It is not a separate issue Zeb. It is the same issue for most people. You are concerned about government snooping because you have principles and ideals and think it is just wrong for them to do it. Well that is laudable and all but that is not how most people think and even if they do they probably don’t share your suspicions of government. The reason most people have in the past objected to government snooping is because they valued their their privacy and were bothered by a stranger knowing private things about them. Now few people care if strangers know private things about them and thus they are not concerned about government snooping.

        Once again, to protect privacy, people have to value privacy.

        1. people, on some level, do value privacy but they have sold that in the name of an imagined sense of security. It’s like the post-Sandy Hook poll with all those folks allegedly supporting bans and such. Until they got a look at the bill. And saw that it does nothing. Freedom has been traded for the illusion of security.

          1. True. But in the past they wouldn’t have sold it so cheaply.

    2. There is a big difference between releasing whorish footage of myself on a webcam vs. government agents watching everybody on CCTV/UAV.

      1. To you there is. But there isn’t to most people. There is is difference to you because you don’t like or trust the government and object to it on principle. Well, most people aren’t like you. They are not bothered by strangers knowing private shit about them and don’t worry about the government because they don’t think of themselves as criminals. Therefore, they don’t care if the government monitors them.

        1. Yeah, I guess this post just reinforces what the popularity of social media had already taught me – that I’m the weird one who doesn’t always want to share what I do.

    3. This^^^. Nothing is private anymore. Work with the public, like I do, and eventually you will be told the most freakishly unbelievable stuff imaginable. It makes me think of a line from PS, Your Cat is Dead, “Do you have ANY unuttered thoughts?”

    4. Well, if the public and the law believe there is no right of privacy, I imagine the time will be ripe for the pro-lifers to get SCOTUS to revist Roe v Wade.

  3. Only 20 percent think that the government has gone too far restricting civil liberties while fighting terrorism. 26 percent don’t think the government has gone far enough.

    So the other 54 percent think our liberties have been restricted by just the right amount?

    1. Papa bear said too much!
      Mama bear said too little!
      Baby bear said just riigghhtt!

    2. Yes. Welcome to status quo bias.

  4. It is stunning that after the PATRIOT Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that 26 percent of Americans think that the government has not restricted our civil liberties enough in the name of fighting terrorism.

    I do not think it is stunning at all. Beyond some hassle in line at the airport, what actual impacts would any significant number of people have experienced in their d2d lives as a result of PATRIOT and DHS? Not much I am willing to bet. Everyone has (in thier mind anyway) experience with terrorism, albeit mostly through their various screens. THAT experience trumps the horrible experience they can only imagine from DHS and PAtriot Act.

    1. Yes. But it is worse than that. In the past people valued their privacy because they felt that there were certain things that you were obligated to keep private. The very idea of someone knowing the dynamics of their marriage or say their sexual predilections was loathsome to them. So the old “if you are not a criminal what do you have to hide” argument was a dog that wouldn’t hunt. It didn’t matter that you were not a criminal. Most people were embarrassed and angry by the idea of even an anonymous bureaucrat knowing private things about them. Now no one gives a shit. Now people share everything about their private lives no matter how embarrassing or strange with the whole world on the internet. And in fact, the internet encourages it because no matter how strange you are, you are guaranteed to find a group of people just like you who will tell you how wonderful you are and how horrible anyone who calls you strange is.

      So given that, it is no surprise at all that the “if you are not a terrorist you have nothing to worry about” argument now carries the day. Most people are not terrorists and thanks to the death of discretion have nothing to worry about.

      1. I think you overgeneralize a bit. I think that many, if not most people still want to keep those things private. It’s a silent majority type of thing. You don’t notice those people because they are not broadcasting their private lives on the internet. It’s like people who think that all drug users are violent and crazy, because those are the ones you see on the news.

        1. Maybe Zeb. But even if they are not outright exhibitionists, they are very desensitized to the idea of sharing private information. And that is why they are not bothered by government surveillance.

          1. I don’t know, John; I don’t see a critical mass thing, just an obvious channel for those prone to exhibitionism in the first place. Even most folks with FB pages don’t put their most private details out there. Sure, some do, but a lot of those folks were simply blabbing the same TMI in people’s faces before social media came about.

            1. But even if all or even most people don’t advertise their private information to the world, it is more of a preference now rather than a value. I think polls like this, which are very consistent and numerous, show that people just are not as bothered by others knowing private things about them as they used to be.

              Maybe the government has managed to terrorize them into paying any price for security. But I don’t think so. I think there is some of that. But it is more they are just not that bothered by being monitored.

      2. John, good post.

        An example of what you are describing (“the internet encourages it because no matter how strange you are, you are guaranteed to find a group of people just like you who will tell you how wonderful you are…) is Donna Simpson, the woman who was striving to reach 1,000 pounds. She would provide periodic updates on her “progress”. I believe that she had a fan club as well.

        Her supporters were not limited to people just like her as she had lots of skinny, nerdy guys sending her snacks and other food as well as praising her on youtube.

        1. Thank you. And that is a good example. People don’t just expect but in some ways are expected to publicly celebrate every single thing in their lives. It used to be that grown men played with children’s toys in secret. Now they are called Bronies and they celebrate it on the internet. Good for them I guess. But we can’t really too surprised when such people are happy to let the government install cameras everywhere.

      3. I don’t have a facebook page, twitter account, or Google+ profile. In fact the only “social media” profile I have is LinkedIn, and I hardly ever do anything with it.

        Yet some people think I’m the weird one.

        1. I have yet to figure out what use Linkedin has beyond being a facebook page for professional acquaintances.

  5. The “if you aren’t a terrorist, you’ve got nothing to hide” argument is very effective against the simple-minded.

    1. First they came for the terrorists and I said nothing.

      Then they came for, oh wait..

    2. The simple minded and or the exhibitionist. Think about it for a moment. Take principle out of it for a moment and assume you consider yourself to be totally law abiding.

      What reason do you have to object to the government monitoring your life? Why does that bother you so much? It won’t if you are an exhibitionist will it? It might if you have serious principles. But most people don’t have principles. Most people think the way they do because of how things directly affect them.

  6. 78 percent think that surveillance cameras are a good idea.

    Good for them. Let them have government provided surveillance cameras installed in their own homes. Leave me out of it.

    1. But leaving you out of it would just make your home a haven for terrorist activity.

      1. It already is.

    2. So, because people support cameras in public spaces, they must support cameras in their own private spaces? You’re really putting that logic out there for the whole world to see?

  7. could not find a single Watertown resident who was uncomfortable with being told to stay inside while the hunt for Tsarnaev took place

    If a bunch of militarized retards was running around my neighborhood looking to kill someone, I’d have probably hid in my basement for safety sake too.

    1. Yeah. I wouldn’t have let the stupid bastards in my house, but I sure as hell would not have been on the streets with them.

      1. I would have gone outside and walked around to assert that I have the right to do so.

        1. God love you for it. I would have been sure to send a nice wreath to your funeral.

    2. the guy who went out for a smoke, the one who found the fugitive brother, apparently reached his comfort limit.

  8. Why will the government be watching the alt-text?

  9. Goddamn it, H&R. In which thread do we make glib comments about SCORPION STARE?

    1. That’s a rhetorical question, right?

  10. SOoooo…forget about that previous thread about freedom? I guess?

    1. All of the cool kids are on this thread. But if you want to hang out with those other people, I suppose you can.

      1. I was referring to the fact this post substantiates a position very different from mine in the other thread but…ok, i don’t like you guys anyway…i am taking my ball and going home.

        1. I was referring to the fact this post substantiates a position very different from mine in the other thread but

          Really demonstrates part of what I was getting at there about people voting themselves into authoritarianism.

          1. I still refuse to believe it is the LONG view result. My only evidence to support that belief is if it were then we would have been in a state of total subjugation for thousands of years including now.

            1. I still refuse to believe it is the LONG view result.

              I tend to think of it in the form of a cycle, really. What concerns me is the length of time that a cycle may take to complete. Unless people change psychologically in some fundamental way that they haven’t up until this point I’m not optimistic for widespread liberty in a world without new frontiers.

  11. New Poll Shows Most Americans Support Public Surveillance are dipshits

    FTFY. But then again, I guess you could say that about most polls.

    1. This is typical (reminds me of liberals) elitism I don’t subscribe to at all. I deal with very average americans every single day at work, the people who make this country work and imo they are not dipshits. And I certainly won’t base that assessment on dipshittery because of whether I agree with them on a poll about surveillance.

      I really think this is one of the biggest similarity between liberals and libertarians. Imo (and the posts here CLEARLY SHOW THAT with tons of posts about how “90% of Americans are idiots” and stuff like that) it’s a near constant amongst both groups that they tend to think of the “average american” as dumb.

      And of course THEY are an exception.

      Of course.

  12. Let’s remember, these are surveillance cameras on public property, recording events where people have no expectation of privacy. The stuff is happening in public. It’s not private. I think some of the work on the “mosaic” theory of privacy over at volokh.com has worth in this argument, since historically there is NO privacy issue whatsoever with putting camera(s) in public places. The problem is that with more and more of them, that mosaic thing kicks in.

    The law and rightly so draws a very bright and strict (stricter in many states like mine) about private and nonprivate affairs. As a LEO, I abide by these restrictions every day. I get a lot of useful intel and make a lot of good arrests based on what I can see from public places. Obviously I could make a lot more from areas I am not supposed to be, but the constitution says – no, so I don’t.

    Here we have a lot of potential to catch inchoate acts and gather intel w. violating privacy. Especially with facial recognition software as well.

    1. Currently, despite Orwell’s predictions, it’s little brother not big brother that does THE VAST majority of intel collection and surveillance on us. It’s not even close. Way more detailed and way more private information is held by private companies and most people haven’t complained. When I am looking for intel on people, I don’t (primarily) go to law enforcement databases. Our detectives (and I piggyback) have subscriptions to database services that get tons of info from private databases, and it’s just amazing the amount of info you (and i mean YOU if you want to pay for one of these services. they are available to ‘civilians’) can find out about your neighbor if you want to.

      It’s pretty scary. Imo, far more scary than a camera in a public place.

      1. for the last time

        YOU ARE A CIVILIAN!!!

        now look, he made me break a two year old rule of mine…DAMNIT

        1. Jesus christ, lighten up. I put it in quotes for exactly that reason. It’s clunky to refer to cops and “non-cops” so god forbid I trotted out the “civilian” thangs.

          We are all civilians. Yes

        2. Petulant, nitpicky responses like this by CB are one of the things that convinced me that, contrary to what some want us to believe, the rows I get in with certain other posters here are not primarily my fault.

          Just like any other site on the web, when you walk outside the range of acceptable groupthink opinion here at H+R, you get hammered and nitpicked by the swarm.

          1. Did Joe or MNG ever whine that they were hammered and nitpicked by the swarm?

      2. Database services? Sounds interesting… got any recommendations?

  13. Exhibit 2,356 why democracy is a bad idea.

  14. I don’t have a problem with businesses putting up cameras inside their business to fight theft and property crimes.

    I don’t have a problem with businesses putting up cameras that monitor public spaces adjacent to the business.

    I don’t have a problem with the police getting copies of private surveillance tapes after getting a warrant signed by a judge.

    I have enormous problems with the government putting up cameras to monitor as much public space as possible and maintaining repositories of surveillance data.

    1. LEO’s should not be REQUIRED (nor are they under the law) to get a warrant to get copies of private surveillance tapes.

      Most holders of same voluntarily turn them over. In the case where they are crime victims, they call us up and ASK US to come pick up copies of the tape.

      Why the hell should a burglary victim who has video tape of his house being burglarized require the cops to get a warrant to get a copy of the video of his house being burglarized? It makes no sense whatosever.

      I agree with you about having a big problem with govt. maintaining repositories of surveillance data. How the data is recorded, accessed and purged is critical IF they are going to record public spaces.

      1. If my shop gets robbed, it is my best interest to turn my tapes over to the police.

        However, I don’t believe that all the neighboring businesses should automatically hand over all their tapes.

        1. Well, first of all, people should do things because they are “the right thing to do ” not merely because it’s in their best interest.

          IMO, that’s what most people do – the right thing. When I am investigating a case (like I did a DUI in a convenience store parking lot the other night), and videotape is available (like in this case) I’ve never once had a store owner etc. refuse to turn over video or demand a warrant. Most want to HELP SOLVE crimes (whether they are the victim or not) and bring the guilty to justice and help the innocent prove their innocence. Iow, they have the same desires I have.

          But what exactly is your position here?

          Assume crime happens. ShopX gets robbed.

          Shop Y and Shop Z have relevant video of the event.

          Should or should not Shop Y and Shop Z “automatically” turn over tapes? Ime, they DO and as a moral matter they SHOULD… but what IS your position. If they shouldn’t automatically do it, what SHOULD they do?

        2. What do you mean by “should automatically”?

          Morally I think you should hand over evidence to investigate a crime against someone else. It’s also a good thing to do in view of the fact that you will want your neighbors’ help in the future if you’re the victim of a crime.

          Should they be FORCED to hand the tapes over? That’s debatable I guess.

  15. It is stunning that after the PATRIOT Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that 26 percent of Americans think that the government has not restricted our civil liberties enough in the name of fighting terrorism.

    The Patriot Act (and other WoT legislation/executive actions) is of course horrible in many ways, but reality is it hasn’t affected most people’s liberty, at least not in a way that they notice. So this belief is not surprising; TBH I’m surprised the percentage isn’t higher.

    1. I thought you were going to be gone for a month?

      1. You guys do realize you sound like Lex Luthor when he found out Superman escaped and was going to ruin his plan.

        1. So you’re saying we shouldn’t listen to because we should just expect you to lie?

    2. of course horrible in many ways, but reality is it hasn’t affected most people’s liberty, at least not in a way that they notice.

      I’m not sure how you define this.

      Do you define “not in a way they notice” as the government is snooping the fuck out of us in various constitution-violating ways and… we just don’t notice?

      Does it mean that the stuff that happens like the increased penalties for crimes that in older times would have resulted in a slap on the wrist or even just an admonishment from a concerned law enforcement officer can result in a “terrorism” charge, but because this doesn’t happen often, people don’t “notice”? (and no, I’m not talking about the Boston Bombings)

      Or do you mean “they don’t notice” because this post-PATRIOT act world we live in just isn’t scrutinized by the average person in any meaningful way?

      I’m genuinely curious.

      1. I don’t see why it needs any clarification. “in a way that they notice” means “in a way that they notice”.

        Definitely most of the snooping is, literally, unnoticed by the targets.

        And of course, I must restate that I am NOT trying to justify the Patriot Act or any of its kin.

    3. Whether one notices the damage to one’s liberty is not a valid yardstick. If you are subject to arbitrary power, you’re subject to arbitrary power. The fact that they didn’t go after you today doesn’t change that. Tomorrow is still in question.

  16. 24 percent think that an attack on the U.S. in the coming months is “very likely.

    America is being reduced to a bunch of pants-wetting cowards.

    1. We just had an attack, so it’s understandable. Also “the coming months” is kind of vague.

    2. To the 24%, please go ahead and shelter in place for the duration.

  17. I think what a lot of people are missing with the whole “well you’re out in public and there’s no expectation of privacy there anyway” argument is that there is a difference between being seen by other folks on the street and being observed and tracked by the government.

    Think of the way most folks get nervous when the car right behind them is cop car. (Sorry Dunphy but that does make most people nervous.) They focus their attention on the cop and “shit am I speeding is my brake light out is my taillight out is my registration expired” and so on.

    Odds are the guy working the counter at the neighborhood deli isn’t going to be scrutinizing you as you walk down the street, unless you’re obviously casing the joint. A cop watching the camera, thinking everybody in sight is a potential terrorist? Quite different.

    And we’ve already seen how Patriot Act related “tools” have been used for plain ol’ “crime”. It won’t be long at all before every fucking activist in the country is clamoring for the cameras to be used to deal with their favorite issue. “But we’ve GOT to do SOMETHING about those icky smokers!”

  18. Sorry, but after 90% of prog-fascists started falling back on out and out bullshit polling to try to manufacture an artificial Overton window, I’m regarding any poll that favors the state as somewhere in between spin and the Big Lie.

  19. There is a big difference in privacy between things in the public sphere (outside in public space), peersonal informaiton we give to specific entities with limits (information to google or a bank) and non-public information- inside property or a home. Any discussion needs to address all three instead of mixing them up.

    One point–it is hard to limit government more than you limit private individuals. If a store can monitor the space out front, it is hard to see why government can’t. I trust government less, but…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.