Minnesota Poll finds acceptance of NSA data collection program

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2013 - 10:46 AM

In fight against terror, most Minnesotans support NSA program.

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A sign outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.

Photo: Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

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A clear majority of Minnesotans appear to be shrugging off privacy concerns amid revelations of a massive U.S. government anti-terrorism program that collects data on citizens’ phone calls and Internet usage.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll finds that 57 percent of Minnesotans approve of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) court-authorized dragnet of phone and Internet data to spot possible terrorist activity. Only 33 percent say they disapprove, while 10 percent are unsure.

The poll also finds that more Minnesotans disapprove than approve of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s decision to leak the existence of the government’s data collection. The 46-42 split on that question suggests some uncertainty about Snowden’s motives and whether the public has a right to know more about the highly classified operation.

At the same time, 60 percent of Minnesotans surveyed say they believe President Obama’s assurance that, despite the widespread data mining, “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Another 38 percent said they believe the statement to be false or completely false.

The findings are based on interviews with 800 Minnesota adults, June 11-13, by land line and cellphone. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Interviews with poll respondents revealed a deep strain of ambivalence behind the numbers.

“To a certain extent, I’m unhappy that people in general are being tracked,” said Dawn Teigland, a retired addiction counselor in Lindstrom. “I know it’s not actual conversations, but I think there’s a lot of information that can be gathered about individuals in doing this tracking.”

Despite her reservations, Teigland, a Republican, said she recognizes the post-9/11 threats the nation is facing. “I understand that with the Patriot Act [the law that authorized the program] we need to be able to do some of this,” she said. “But I was under the impression that it would not be this widespread. For that reason, I’m concerned about it.”

Others said that given the realities of the modern digital age, the existence of the NSA’s program is no surprise.

“I’d say it’s par for the course,” said David Aldright, a health care technology professional in St. Paul. “It’s more of an assumption about what the government is doing to protect us, because everything is electronic today, e-mail, phone calls, what have you. I see it as part of modern life. That’s where the information is. You have to go to the source.”

Given the ubiquity of electronic communications, Aldright said he’s skeptical about government assurances that they don’t listen in on calls. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they listen for key words, and if there’s nothing there they move on,” he said.

But Aldright, a political independent, said he also sees little harm in the revelation of intrusive security programs such as PRISM, which allows the government to intercept the calls and e-mails of non-U.S. citizens abroad.

“Everybody pretty much knows this stuff is going on,” he said. “If you look behind the scenes, maybe the American public doesn’t know, but other governments know, and they’re probably all doing it themselves.”

Some opponents of the NSA program see it as the inevitable result of what they see as congressional overreach after the 9/11 attacks. “I was upset when the Patriot Act was passed, and I knew it would lead to things like this,” said Larry Janssen, an occupational safety and health consultant in Stillwater. “When you put a law like that in place, it’s something that the agencies responsible expand in scope to take more power.”

Janssen, an independent who voted for Obama, said he trusts the president’s assurances that citizens’ phone calls are not being monitored without warrants. But he added, “these things always have a way of growing beyond what they were intended to be.”

Despite Janssen’s reservations about the intelligence operation, he has mixed feelings about Snowden’s decision to expose it. “His intentions were probably good,” Janssen said of Snowden, “but I don’t know if it was the right thing to do what he did.”

Given the public’s growing resignation to government intelligence operations, some found Snowden’s leak the most troubling part of the NSA story.

“As I read about it, it’s the most puzzling of the current crises that have been happening,” said Vivian Mason, a former Minneapolis park board member. “This low-level employee had access to all these things. The fact that somebody like that could have the access and be able to come out publicly and create this whole incident was more shocking to me.”

  • How the poll was conducted

    Today’s Star Tribune Minnesota Poll findings are based on interviews conducted June 11-13 with 800 Minnesota adults via land line (79 percent) and cellphone (21 percent). The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc.

    Results of a poll based on 800 interviews will vary by no more than 3.5 percentage points, plus or minus, from the overall population 95 times out of 100. Margins are larger for groups within the sample, such as Democrats and Republicans.

    The self-identified party affiliation of the random sample is: 36 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican, 29 percent independent or other party and 5 percent who said “none.”

    Sampling error does not take into account other sources of variation inherent in public opinion surveys, such as nonresponse, question wording or context effects. In addition, news events may have affected opinions during the period the poll was taken.

    Readers can e-mail questions to djmcgrath@startribune.com.

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