Public Opinion on Surveillance and Security

By: John Honovich, Published on Oct 27, 2009

The following update catalogs and analyzes 3 surveys on public opinion toward surveillance and security. The responses vary based significantly on the country surveyed and the framing of the questions in each survey.

Unisys Security Index

Twice a year, Unisys releases survey results of security attitudes for various countries including Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, UK and the US.

The most recent global report (Dec 2008) found that security concerns were highest in Brazil, Hong Kong, Germany and Malaysia. The lowest security concerns were found in The Netherlands, France, Belgium and Italy. 

National security was ranked as a top 3 concern by only 7 of the 15 countries surveyed. Bankcard fraud and identity theft were consistently ranked as higher security concerns.

For specific countries, the US rated national security significantly higher than the global average (161 for the US vs 131 globally - out of 250 point scale). Brazil's concerns over national security were even higher than the US (175 but trending down from over 200 in previous years).

Harris Online Poll

The most favorable and almost controversial is the BRS Labs funded Harris Online poll. This poll claims that "96 Percent of Americans Support Uses of Video Surveillance to Counteract Terrorism" and more amazingly that "Four out of five adults feel that in extreme cases,such as a terrorist attack, the government should be able to use any available means to protect citizens" [emphasis mine].

However, a Canadian research critiqued this survey by examining the details of the actual response. The phrasing of the questions encourage favorable responses to the use of video surveillance. For instance, questions included: "The federal government should be able to utilize video surveillance as long as my personal privacy is not invaded" and "Which of the following areas, if any, do you think should be monitored by video surveillance in an effort to help protect U.S. citizens." Both questions minimizing privacy concerns and emphasizing helping US citizens.

The Canadian researcher also noted that in the survey, support for surveillance in many areas were far weaker than the overall 96% claim. For instance, support  for surveillance in Public schools/Universities:53%, playgrounds: 39%, businesses: 32% and local neighborhoods: 22%.

UK Big Brother Watch Poll

Big Brother Watch, a group that campaigns against surveillance, commissioned its own survey.

79% somewhat or strongly agreed that "our freedoms are being eroded by a Big Brother State."

16% somewhat or strongly supported "the use of Closed Circuit Television cameras that can record your conversations." 

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