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New report shows global opposition to NSA spying is based on privacy, not ideology

NSA-1024x640By Simon Davies

The largest global study conducted to-date on public attitudes to communications surveillance in the post-Snowden era has revealed widespread opposition to US spying across all continents.

The Pew Research Center’s “Global Attitudes Project” conducted extensive interviews with participants in 44 countries and identified heightened public concern over surveillance of citizens by the US.

The surveillance aspect was one element of a much wider investigation into opinions on a range of global and regional policy issues, relating particularly to China and the US. Researchers interviewed 1,000 people in each of the 44 countries.

The variance of views is stark. Greece, which topped the anti-surveillance league table, reported only two percent support for US surveillance of its citizens as being an “acceptable” activity.

The variance of views is stark. Greece, which topped the anti-surveillance league table, reported only two percent support for US surveillance of its citizens as being an “acceptable” activity. At the other end of the scale, 61 percent of Philippines respondents believed US surveillance is acceptable.

The overall picture is, however, unequivocal. With the exception of the US, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines and South Africa (where relatively strong support was shown for US spying activities) the overwhelming view expressed by other countries is that the practice is unacceptable. On average, this view was ten times higher than the “acceptable” figure. Middle East respondents, for example, reported an average eight percent level of support for US spying of citizens.

Studies were conducted in seven EU countries:  Greece, Poland, Germany, Spain, France, Italy and the UK. Perhaps predictably, the UK expressed the highest level of overall acceptance of US spying, but even there, only 27 percent of respondents felt the practice is justified. In France, Germany and Spain only twelve percent of people believe US surveillance is acceptable.

Unfortunately the UK was the only non-US member of the “Five eyes” intelligence alliance to be surveyed. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were not included in the surveillance element of the report.

There is also a remarkable difference of view between sub-Saharan African and Latin American opinion. Of the nine Latin American countries surveyed, the “acceptable” response is an average of thirteen percent. Among the seven sub-Saharan African countries the support response is over thirty percent.

The eleven countries that comprise the report’s Asia-Pacific coverage straddled these extremes with an average support response of around 23 percent.

The high level of support for US spying expressed by Indian respondents (35 percent) has surprised some observers, particularly in view of recent surveys of the Indian population that show a strong and growing concern over privacy threats.

opposition to US surveillance is not based so much on a political or ideological position, but on a rational and informed distinction between mass surveillance of citizens and targeted surveillance of terrorist suspects. Universally, respondents recognized this distinction and overwhelmingly opposed untargeted mass surveillance.

Participants were also asked to give their opinion of US spying in relation both to surveillance of their own political leaders and of suspected terrorists. This latter aspect provided the most important message in the Pew report.

On the matter of targeted surveillance of suspected terrorists, there was an overwhelming show of support regardless of geographic region. Brazil, for example, which expressed a 94 percent opposition to US surveillance of citizens, reported only a 31 percent opposition to surveillance of suspected terrorists. The variance was even more stark in Russia, where 87 percent of respondents opposed surveillance of its citizens, compared to an opposition figure of only fifteen percent when the surveillance was directed specifically at suspected terrorists.

This wide gap indicates that opposition to US surveillance is not based so much on a political or ideological position, but on a rational and informed distinction between mass surveillance of citizens and targeted surveillance of terrorist suspects. Universally, respondents recognized this distinction and overwhelmingly opposed untargeted mass surveillance.

61 percent of Egyptian respondents, for example, supported surveillance of suspected terrorists, while only six percent supported general surveillance of its citizens. This pattern is repeated internationally. Germany, while showing only a twelve percent support for surveillance of its citizens, expressed a seventy percent support for targeted terrorist surveillance by the US.

The Pew study echoes the findings of a report published last month by the Privacy Surgeon which highlighted public anxiety across the world over the activities of US spy agencies.

The White House should carefully consider these findings. The clear message from the rest of the world is that hostility to the US is widespread on the question of untargeted surveillance and that a real effort must be made to ensure that the NSA and colleague agencies are more open and accountable.

As the reported noted: “The Snowden revelations appear to have damaged one major element of America’s global image: its reputation for protecting individual liberties. In 22 of 36 countries surveyed in both 2013 and 2014, people are significantly less likely to believe the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its citizens. In six nations, the decline was 20 percentage points or more.

Clearly, the world view of the US will continue to decline in response to concern over NSA surveillance activities. The Obama administration urgently needs to allay these concerns.