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Some shrug at NSA snooping: Privacy's already dead

Heather Kelly, CNN
News of a secret U.S. government surveillance program has outraged digital-privacy advocates, but some users are unfazed.
News of a secret U.S. government surveillance program has outraged digital-privacy advocates, but some users are unfazed.
  • Some people are reacting to NSA news with resignation and lack of concern
  • Many consider the monitoring by the government a necessary trade-off for increased security
  • For those who are upset and want to act, civil liberties activists recommend contacting Congress

(CNN) -- A series of revelations about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs sparked outrage among many this week, including the expected privacy activists and civil libertarians.

But there seems to be a gap between the roiling anger online and the attitudes of other people, especially younger ones, who think it's just not that big a deal.

It's the rare issue that crosses party lines in terms of outrage, apathy and even ignorance. When interviewing people about the topic in downtown San Francisco, we found a number of people of all ages who had not heard the news, and more than one who asked what the NSA was.

The rest had various reasons for not being terribly concerned.

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Privacy is already dead

When the news broke on Wednesday, a number of people responded online by saying an extensive government surveillance program wasn't surprising and just confirmed what they already knew.

The lack of shock wasn't limited to savvy technologists who have been following reports from organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, that cover possible monitoring going back to 2007. Many people already assumed that information online was easily accessible by corporations and the government.

A survey conducted by the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor just days before the NSA news broke found that 85% of Americans already believed their phone calls, e-mails and online activity were being monitored.

Allen Trember from San Luis Obispo, California, said he knew when he started using the Internet that his information wasn't going to be private, but still lamented that privacy no longer exists.

"I don't like it, but what can I do about it?" he said. "I'm just glad that we have as much freedom as we do."

Internet laughs about being spied on

OK sacrificing privacy for security

A national joint survey conducted in April by CNN, Time and ORC International found that 40% of respondents were willing to give up some of their civil liberties for increased security.

That survey was conducted after the Boston Marathon bombing and before news of the NSA programs was public.

"Out of sight, out of mind," is how Will, 28, responded to the news. The Nevada resident said he would rather not know about the program, and thought its being public would make it easier for criminals to circumvent the government's security programs.

A Twitter account @_nothingtohide quickly sprung up and started retweeting one of the more common reactions: People aren't worried about the NSA monitoring their calls or online activity because they believe they have no crimes or information to hide from the government.

"If the government wants to look at my phone records to keep me safe ... so be it. I don't have anything to hide," tweeted Cayla Marie.

"Terror war only fought by intelligence gathering. We criticize those entrusted to keep us safe & scream when they fail to do so," reads a tweet from Lucy Rose.

Nearly half of Americans say the government would never abuse such an extensive trove of data. The Heartland Monitor poll found that 48% of Americans trust the government "some" or a "great deal" with their private data.

Leslie Harris, president of the civil liberties group Center for Democracy and Technology, thinks the all or nothing view is flawed.

"In a constitutional democracy like the United States, the goal is to find the balance between security and liberty, not to sacrifice liberty for security," she said. "I think that simply giving up on our privacy throws off the balance in a democracy between a government and its citizens."

How does it affect me?

Nothing I can do

Recent surveys have shown that Americans in their teens and twenties share more of their lives online and are less concerned about digital privacy than older Web users.

For people who are not worried about the government seeing their personal communications, the revelations lack an immediate impact on their lives and there's no urgent push to take action.

"I think that at the moment, people may not feel the impact, but the fact that we have a secret agency that can access most of our digital lives -- I think that the loss will be felt over time," Harris said.

Even people who disagree with the program might not think they can do anything about it. Users still don't know how the government is getting the information and what role the major Internet companies played in the snooping.

There have been vehement, similar denials from the CEOs of Facebook and Google. These companies rightfully fear the accusations could damage their businesses, as people move to other Web services that might be more secure.

Harris recommended people who are concerned start by contacting their representatives in Congress.

"We are citizens in a democracy," she said. "We can demand from our elected officials greater transparency."

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