August 14, 2013

Report: U.S. Public Willing to Give Up Some Privacy for Increased Security against Terrorism

Highlights

  • The U.S. public is willing to give up some privacy rights in exchange for increased security against terrorism, according to a new report by RTI International
  • A national survey of more than 1,500 people presented a series of questions in which participants were asked to choose between combinations of policies that aim to improve homeland security
  • The research found that most people favored policies allowing the government access to personal information with a judge’s approval and would enable the government to only use a person’s country of citizenship for screening

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The U.S. public is willing to give up some privacy rights in exchange for increased security against terrorism, according to a new report.

The report was conducted by the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions (IHSS), a research consortium led by RTI International. 

RTI researchers conducted a national survey of more than 1,500 people and found that individuals are willing to accept both the monetary and nonmonetary costs of counterterrorism policies that erode privacy and civil liberties if the policies reduce expected deaths from terrorism.

Participants were presented with a series of questions in which they were asked to choose between combinations of policies that aim to improve homeland security. Five government policies were included in these questions: increasing taxes to fund efforts to prevent terrorism; increasing government access to personal information; using race, ethnicity, or country of citizenship to identify potential terrorists; jailing suspected terrorists without trial; and using hard methods to question suspected terrorists. Various levels of each of these policies were presented to survey participants.

The results indicate that the extent to which participants willingly accept homeland security policies in exchange for improvements in security differs by the strategy under consideration and by other factors such as the political affiliation and race of the respondent.

Two-thirds of participants, for example, support requiring all airline passengers to submit to full-body scans, but nonwhites were more likely to support that requirement than whites.

Only one-third of participants found using harsh methods to question suspected terrorists to be unacceptable under any circumstances, even when those suspects are U.S. citizens. However, when viewed by political affiliation, half of liberals think harsh methods of interrogation for U.S. citizens should never be allowed, compared to 34 percent of moderates and 23 percent of conservatives.

All the groups were more likely to accept harsh methods of questioning a suspected terrorist if the person was not a U.S. citizen.

“Our study found that individuals are willing to make tradeoffs between liberty and security,” said Carol Mansfield, Ph.D., a senior economist at RTI and a co-author of the report. “In general, people seemed to prefer a middle ground between prohibiting an activity by the government and allowing unrestricted use.

The research found that most people favored policies that would allow the government access to personal information with a judge’s approval, would enable the government to only use a person’s country of citizenship for screening, would allow the government to jail suspected terrorists for no more than six months, and would allow the use of harsh questioning methods with approval from responsible officials regardless of whether an attack is imminent.

The survey used methods that allow the respondents’ preferences for one strategy over another to be expressed quantitatively. For example, the average person reported that he or she would be willing to accept a policy of unlimited access to personal information if this policy was expected to save 979 or more deaths from terrorism on U.S. soil over the next 10 years. However, conservatives would only require 286 or fewer deaths for this policy change to be acceptable.

When viewed monetarily, participants reported they would require about $3,000 of compensation in taxes over the next 10 years to accept a policy where the U.S. government has unlimited access to personal information versus a policy where the government has no access to that information. Conservatives, however, reported they would only require $714 in compensation for that same time period.

“While the specific numbers should be interpreted cautiously, they provide a gauge for how strongly people feel about the different policies,” said Brent Rowe, a senior economist at RTI and another co-author of the report. “Taken as a whole, the responses to the survey reflect the complexity of addressing the risk of terrorism, weighing the effectiveness of homeland security strategies, the monetary and nonmonetary costs to society, and the expected benefits.”