3 of 10 Americans willing to give up their rights for ineffective protection from bogeyman

Survey shows far too many favor digital surveillance of email, phones, finances for no good reason

I like to think I'm as tolerant of other people's opinions as most other Americans.

I don't generally attribute other people's idiocy to incurable moral corruption, collusion with the forces of evil or rank stupidity.

I'm also courteous enough to wait until their backs are turned before making fun of them.

Not this time.

According to a study released Tuesday by a respected social-science research center at the University of Chicago, three out of every 10 Americans is a blind, blithering, cowardly idiot willing to give up important parts of everyone's rights to keep themselves a tiny bit safer from a threat that's largely imaginary.

The study, called "Civil Liberties and National Security: 10 Years After 9/11" was designed to quantify the opinions of Americans about how far law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. government should be allowed to go to prevent another terrorist attack like those on Sept. 11, 2001.

It reflects the opinions of almost 1,100 adults conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press.

It also reflects an astonishing acceptance of not only the possibility, but the right of government agencies to monitor all the private conversations and activities of any random American's daily business and activities.

The survey found 30 percent were willing to accept warrantless government monitoring of domestic email, while 47 percent were willing to accept it for international email.

About the same percentage thought monitoring international phone calls was acceptable, but only 25 percent said warrantless eavesdropping on domestic phone conversations was OK.

NORC and the AP sound a little smug about by how small a percentage of people said they'd be fine being surveilled at any time (or would be fine if other people were surveilled, anyway). The truth is that number is disturbingly high, even though it's less than half the percentage who realize what an outrage it is to have a functionary of an elected government spy on the citizens that elected that government.

Even Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said Americans were surprisingly willing to accept the elimination of some rights in order to make terrorist investigations easier, but are now shifting away from that opinion.

"People are just not quite willing to accept these tradeoffs, particularly when they are ineffective," the AP quoted him as saying.

I thought that idiocy all faded away in the couple of years after 9/11, when abuses by the FBI, Homeland Security and other new domestic intelligence agencies made it clear that giving law enforcement agencies the ability to ignore the Constitution was a really really bad idea. Especially when the same politicians are tacitly threatening to blame those same agencies for the next attack if they weren't able to prevent it.

Given the opportunity to break the rules and the threat of Really Bad Things happening to their country and career if they didn’t take advantage of every bit of leeway, what else would they do?

Despite several public scandals, Congress has been unsuccessful in pressuring the Justice Department to estimate how many people have had their phone calls, bank records or emails monitored without a warrant.

The story noted a recent AP investigation revealing the New York City Police Department had created a secret police unit responsible for secretly monitoring "daily life inside Muslim communities."

It's actually surprising there wasn't more abuse of the special powers the Bush administration gave Homeland Security and the FBI to demand private phone, bank, financial and other records from the companies we buy them from while requiring that none of them warn us it was happening.

A lot of us apparently didn't learn that lesson, though the court cases go on to back up the stodgy old Constitution against the hot new willingness to do whatever digital or physical violence is necessary to anyone but us personally to keep the bogeyman in his closet.

In 2009 a federal judge threw out (for technical reasons) a case filed by the ACLU to stop warrantless wiretaps by the NSA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is arguing another right now, also against the NSA.

Acceptance of the idea that any electronic communication could be eavesdropped upon without a warrant or any other legal supervision is just one straw on this particular camel's back.

According to the survey, a disturbing number of our fellow citizens are willing to accept violations of all kinds of rights in the name of safety:

  • 52 percent said torture of prisoners can sometimes be justified;
  • 47 percent favor a national ID card every resident would be required to carry;
  • 55 percent favor warrantless government monitoring of private financial transactions;
  • 58 percent favor random full-body searches of airplane passengers;
  • 71 percent favor surveillance cameras in public;
  • 35 percent favor racial or ethnic profiling to decide who get stopped for searches in airports or other public places.

Ten years after 9/11, with no repeat of any attack on the scale of the first one and little evidence any of the extra-Constitutional measures to increase the powers of the FBI and police were responsible for foiling what terrorist plots were discovered, we're still just as afraid of the bogeyman as we were on 9/12 and just as willing to give away our rights for the false promise of protection against him.

No matter how hard I try, there are just some opinions and points of view for which I have absolutely no sympathy.

Giving away inalienable rights to gain unattainable security is thoughtless, self defeating and cowardly.

Through the lens of either the evidence showing the tradeoff doesn't work or the one showing the moral and ethical deterioration inherent in any society willing to abuse the rights of some to make others feel more comfortable, there's simply no other way to look at it.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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