Americans Sharply Split on Privacy Issues

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Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / The Guardian / Reuters

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a U.S. defence contractor, in his hotel room in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.

The Edward Snowden leak case, which exposed some of the practical elements of NSA surveillance operations unknown to many Americans, has also revealed just how divided the nation remains over whether the government should be permitted to intrude on privacy to safeguard national security.

According to the Pew Research Center, 56% of Americans think the “NSA getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans” is acceptable. For many, such intrusions are legitimate sacrifices if intelligence-gathering programs can held fend off terrorist threats. That surprises privacy experts. “The same people who are unwilling to trust the government in any other walk of life,” says Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Center at NYU’s Brennan Center for Progress, “are oddly willing to give absolute trust and control to the government on issues of national security.”

(MORE: The Surveillance Society)

There is also considerable dispute over the limits of our privacy rights. Many lawmakers believe the NSA’s monitoring programs are completely legal. Groups like the Electronic Information Privacy Center, a public interest research group that recently petitioned the Supreme Court to stop NSA collection of domestic telephone call data, hope to see the programs examined and struck down by the High Court, which could consider the challenge as soon as the fall.

Experts say the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata is the most worrisome of the revelations Snowden helped bring to light. While the PRISM program targets suspicious foreigners using sites like Google and Facebook, it is only supposed to pull Americans into the surveillance web if they are linked to those targets. The telephone metadata program requires Verizon, and likely many other cell phone carriers, to provide the NSA with all of its customer call detail records. Mark Rotenberg, the Executive Director of the Electronic Information Privacy Center (EPIC), a public interest research center that recently petitioned the Supreme Court to stop NSA collection of domestic telephone call data, wrote recently that this collection is the most significant of the programs revealed in the leaks.

The secrecy surrounding these surveillance programs means we don’t know exactly how much—or how little—privacy we have.  A secret court, which “operates without anyone representing the other side,” sanctions the NSA programs, says Goitein. “There’s really no appeal.”

Goitein predicts that as abuses come to light, conservatives who back the programs as mechanisms to stave off terrorism may “become less afraid of the original national security threat,” she says, “and more protective of their own civil liberties and their own privacy.”

(MORE: TIME’s full coverage on privacy)