Privacy vs security

Americans and Europeans attach different degrees of priority to both

By Bruce Stokes (World View)

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Published: Thu 19 Dec 2013, 8:31 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:12 PM

Revelations by Edward Snowden of US National Security Agency (NSA) spying have exposed both similarities and differences in public attitudes toward privacy among Europeans and Americans. Both publics value privacy, but Americans, more so than most Europeans, appear willing to sacrifice privacy in the name of security. These differences pose potential challenges to the ongoing free trade discussions between the European Union and the United States, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, where new rules governing the digital economy could prove central to a final agreement.

Americans have conflicting views about NSA activities done in their name. They suggest that the NSA may have gone too far in spying on US allies. They also think that the NSA has intruded on Americans’ personal privacy in scooping up massive amounts of private phone calls and email. But in the pursuit of terrorists, a majority will still trade their personal privacy for greater security.

Such differences have raised new doubts in Europe about the United States. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently told members of the German parliament that US spying “must be explained and more importantly new trust must be built up for the future”. And while it’s too early to know the lasting impact of the Snowden affair on transatlantic relations, Europeans’ perceptions of the United States, especially as a stalwart defender of individual freedom, may face new strains.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 56 per cent of Americans said it is unacceptable for the United States to monitor the phone calls of the leaders of allied nations, including Merkel. Just 36 per cent said it is a tolerable practice.

Nevertheless, when asked to balance security worries against privacy concerns, Americans opt for security.

There has been little cross-national polling of European views on the NSA affair. And the questions are often worded differently or conducted with differing methodologies, so that comparisons between polling findings are more illustrative than definitive. But what has been done suggests notable differences with American viewpoints and some broad similarities.

Like Americans, Europeans appear to be worried about personal privacy. They do not think that national security concerns warrant an invasion of their privacy. Majorities in Germany (70 per cent), France (52 per cent) and Sweden (52 per cent) think that their own government would not be justified in collecting the telephone and Internet data of its citizens as part an effort to protect national security, according to a survey done by TNS Opinion for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. A substantial minority, or 44 per cent, of people in the United Kingdom agree. In this survey, 54 per cent of Americans surveyed suggested that such activity would go too far in violating citizens’ privacy and is therefore not justified.

The exposure of NSA spying has had an impact on America’s image abroad, especially in Europe.

Moreover, the US government’s respect for individual liberty has long been a strong suit of American public diplomacy. Even in many nations where opposition to US foreign policy is widespread and where overall ratings for the United States are low, majorities or pluralities maintained that the country respects individual rights.

In the 2013 Pew Research Center survey, a median of 70 per cent of people in 39 nations thought the United States government respected the personal freedoms of its people. In contrast, a median of only 36 per cent saw China protecting individual liberties.

This view of America as a resolute defender of civil rights was particularly strong in Europe: Italy (82 per cent), Germany (81 per cent), France (80 per cent) and Spain (69 per cent). Positive views of Uncle Sam’s record had risen by 20 points in Spain, 15 in France and 11 in Germany since 2008. But these are now the countries where some of the public outcry against NSA spying has been loudest.

So Americans are of two minds about recent allegations of NSA surveillance of phone and email communications. They worry about its impact on international relations and their own privacy. But that concern continues to be trumped by an ongoing anxiety about terrorism. Europeans similarly share concerns about spying’s impact on privacy, but they generally do not think national security concerns are more important than privacy.

These differences are already playing out in the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Some European officials have called for a pause in the talks in response to the Snowden revelations. That is unlikely. But NSA spying has revived European concerns about who owns data generated by individual consumers through their credit card purchases, Internet searches and the like — and what private companies can and cannot do with that data. Some European privacy advocates would like to ban the cross-border transfer of such data. But many companies, especially data-intensive American firms like Google and Facebook, and even companies like General Electric, claim that the business model of the new digital economy is built on the ability to amass and analyse large sets of data. They argue that quarantining such information within national borders will deny future generations many of the economic benefits to be gained from big data.

The transatlantic disagreement over NSA intrusion into personal privacy is not simply a national security issue, it now has business implications.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center

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