2013 06 07 NYT Many Americans Appear Resigned to Surveillance – NYTimes.com


Many Americans Appear Resigned to Surveillance

Published: June 7, 2013

LOS ANGELES — The string of revelations over the past 48 hours about sweeping government surveillance of American telephone records and Internet activity by foreigners, including e-mail, stirred expressions of concern across the country on Friday — along with something of a collective national shrug.

It is not that people were not upset to learn that the government might be tracking their telephone calls, Facebook posts and Yahoo accounts. It is that in this age of “Homeland,” and a culture that encourages people to share photos and minute-by-minute activities and opinions on public Web sites, the news that the government might be looking in too was often something short of a surprise.

“I think it stinks,” said Steve Talley, 64, a retired state worker in Mount Airy, N.C., a small, conservative town near the border with Virginia. But, he added, “it’s been going on forever.”

“I don’t mean to be cynical, but this is nothing new,” Mr. Talley said. “If people think the government hasn’t been monitoring whatever they want to, whenever they want to they are sorely mistaken.”

At the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, Cedric Hudson, 55, an unemployed machine technician who described himself as a Democrat proud to be from Mr. Obama’s home-state, said he was resigned to these kinds of governmental intrusions.

“It doesn’t bother me because the government is going to do what they’re going to do regardless of what anyone thinks,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

In Atlanta, Mike Brooks, 65, a construction worker, said he lived his life assuming that he was being watched. “Anything and everything you say — they could be privy: That’s what I assume,” he said. “If you’re dumb enough to put this online, then it’s your stupidity.”

And Molly Flores, 28, a fashion designer walking in Midtown Manhattan said she was neither surprised nor concerned by the surveillance.

“Personally, I have nothing to hide, so it’s not really affecting me,” she said. ” It’s not like they’re invading my privacy. I worry about New York because it’s such a target.”

Across the country, people began absorbing what was proving to be at times a confusing barrage of disclosures on precisely what the government was doing. Initially, it appeared that the government was doing extensive data-mining — looking at photos, videos, e-mail and postings — on all sorts of social media. But American officials, in acknowledging the existence of the data-mining program over the past seven years, said that its target was limited to foreign figures.

And while the disclosures drew heavy criticism from civil rights advocates and some members of Congress, many Republicans and Democrats expressed their support for a program that they had voted for, and reauthorized, in the sweep of national security legislation passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The expansion of federal surveillance power was pushed first by President George W. Bush and embraced by President Obama, meaning that this debate, at least so far, has lacked the clear and polarizing partisan intensity that has marked most battles in Washington these days.

The reaction was sharp in some circles. In downtown Denver, Sean Swallow, 39, who works for his brother’s private lending firm, said it affirmed his fears that the government had seized too much power after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“They certainly have taken advantage of it, that’s for sure,” he said, adding: “It’s very Orwellian. It shows that you give them a little bit, and they’ll take it as far as they can.”

Matt Barad, 27, who works at a publishing house in Manhattan, called it “an extreme intrusion of privacy.”

“To be completely honest, it’s almost scary to think that the government, especially the U.S. government, which is seen throughout the world as a protector of our freedom, is doing this,” he said.

And Amy K. Lowe, 4 an administrative assistant at a construction firm in Michigan, Ind., called it a “a blatant disregard for our constitutional rights.”

Reporting was contributed by Kim Severson in Mount Airy, N.C.; Richard Pérez-Peña in New York; Steven Yaccino in Chicago, Robbie Brown in Atlanta, Dan Frosch in Denver, Mona El-Naggar and Emily Gogolak in New York and Jess Bidgood in Cambridge, Mass.

“They don’t need to know at all times what we’re doing,” she added. “I avoid certain apps because of this reason. I never check-in on Facebook. I don’t use OnStar. I don’t think it’s the government’s business to know.”

Earlier this year, news that Harvard University had searched faculty e-mail accounts — ostensibly to gather information on so-called metadata by looking at subject lines, as well as the sender and recipient — set off an uproar among faculty. Harvard faculty members also expressed concern at the government’s surveillance.

“If this is accepted as a reasonable interpretation of what the law permits, then we really do have to expect that the government is watching all of our activity online,” said Harry R. Lewis, 66, a professor of computer science at Harvard and a former dean of Harvard College. “I don’t think it’s what most of us thought was going on, and it’s not something that I, personally, feel should be happening.”

But Reginald Raye, 26, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, said he saw both sides of the issue.

“Clearly the federal government is overstepping some constitutional bounds, but clearly there’s also a need to monitor what’s happening outside our borders,” he said.

By every indication, the continued concern about domestic terrorism has colored the way Americans are reacting to intrusions in their privacy.

Otis Oliver, 75, a retired North Carolina district judge, said that he thought the program was necessary to guard against terrorism in this age of digital communications and threats.

“As a matter of national safety, they have to be allowed to do it,” Mr. Oliver said.

Rob Johnson, 21, a graduate from University of Iowa who moved to Chicago to develop a smartphone app, said he considered it an appropriate trade-off in a post-9/11 world.

“I’d rather have them track who we’re talking to if it saves American lives,” he said. “I think it’s O.K. for them to be that invasive.”

“I think it’s something that we have to get used to,” Mr. Johnson added. “Your habits and activities are being watched. I already assume that Google is tracking everything I do.”

In New York, Jurez J. Pieczonka, 55, said there was a need for surveillance, “but to have balance is tough.”

Lisa S. Cohen, 52, director of sales at a clothing store, who lives on Long Island, applauded the effort.

“I think in this crazy world, it’s a ton of good that they’re following people,” she said. “This is not a new thing, it’s something that they’ve been doing for a while.”

Paul Bologna, 21, a student at Northeastern University, said the disclosure had shaken his confidence and decision to vote for Mr. Obama.

“I expected a change in domestic surveillance from the Bush administration,” he said. “So this is really disappointing.”

But not surprising. “It’s what I have been expecting,” he said. “We all heard about this six or seven years ago, and now we are finding out the details.”

Reporting was contributed by Kim Severson in Mount Airy, N.C.; Richard Pérez-Peña in New York; Steven Yaccino in Chicago, Robbie Brown in Atlanta, Dan Frosch in Denver, Mona El-Naggar and Emily Gogolak in New York and Jess Bidgood in Cambridge, Mass.


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