According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday, roughly 3 out of 4 Americans are “unwilling to share their personal emails, text messages, phone calls and records of online activity with U.S. counter-terrorism investigators” even to help foil domestic terror plots.
Moreover, Americans have become more reluctant to share personal information with law enforcement over the past four years. In 2013, 67 percent of U.S. adults said they would not allow investigators to monitor their Internet activities to combat terrorism. That number has climbed to 75 percent.
This is encouraging. Since 2001, the notion that the imminent threat of terror requires significant sacrifices of individual liberty has been a defining feature of American political life. For a decade and a half, fear ruled the day. With few exceptions—e.g. 2015’s USA Freedom Act—this ideology has enabled the government to consistently expand its surveillance powers. President Trump made the threat of terrorism a centerpiece of his campaign. He blamed Obama’s supposed restraint for allowing ISIS to proliferate and promised to “make America safe again.” To combat terror, he said, “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before… things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
It’s not just Trump. As I have argued elsewhere, fifteen years of bipartisan drumbeating for the War on Terror paved the way for Trump’s apocalyptic message. For years, Republicans and Democrats alike have vastly overstated the threat of terrorism. In June 2016, Hillary Clinton called the Orlando shooting “a nightmare that’s become mind-numbingly familiar.” She told reporters, “We cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it.” She called for “more resources” and “an intelligence surge to bolster our capabilities across the board.” But the terrifying rise of ISIS globally and last year’s tragedies in Orlando and San Bernardino at the hands of individual Americans obscure the fact that terrorism on American soil—whether lone wolf or orchestrated from abroad—remains a vanishingly small danger. You are still many thousands times more likely to be killed by cancer, heart disease, alcohol, or a medical error than by a terrorist. In 2015, attacks perpetrated by Muslim extremists killed nineteen Americans, more than any year since 2001; lightning strikes killed twenty-seven.
These coarse actuarial calculations are cold comfort to Americans who’ve watched these grizzly events unfold, much less to the families of the victims. According to a 2016 NBC poll, 51 percent of Americans still worry that they or someone in their family will die in a terrorist attack. And it’s understandable. That’s why we call it “terrorism.” But it’s also true that in order for that worry to be remotely rational, there would have to be tens of millions of people in your family. Fear has hampered our ability to see the world as it is and warped our policy choices.
Despite having just elected a president who insists that death and danger is around every corner in America, the Reuters poll suggests that the ideology of fear is loosening its grasp on the American psyche. In every category of data—email, texts, phone records, Internet browsing—Americans are more reluctant than before to give up their privacy, even when doing so would help the U.S. government foil a domestic terror plot.
These findings suggest the public’s appreciation for a fact that surveillance boosters are loathe to admit: that when it comes to law enforcement, inefficiency is a feature, not a bug. A given capability—e.g. warrantless access to your email inbox—may make it easier for the government to prevent or prosecute crime, but that is not, in and of itself, sufficient justification for granting that power to the government. It would almost always be more efficient for the police to conduct searches without warrants, but we accept that an interest in privacy prevails over efficiency when it comes to access to our property. If a wallet were stolen in a crowded train, the most effective way to identify the culprit would be to lock the doors and search everyone’s pockets, but that’s not the balance between privacy and security struck by the Fourth Amendment.
Americans know this. And the inflated threat of domestic terror is no longer sufficient to make them forget it when it comes to surveillance. It’s a good sign. In December 2017, Congress will have an opportunity to reform the laws authorizing the NSA’s controversial PRISM and Upstream programs, under which large volumes American communications are “incidentally” collected without a warrant. If recent polling is any indication, the public is ready to contemplate reforms that further enshrine the privacy of our personal data. The question is, are their representatives?