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Americans care more about privacy than security, survey finds

Microsoft would like the government to know that the American people are serious about online privacy.


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Jul 19, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 10:33 pm CDT

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that, ?those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

While Franklin was referring to a legislature’s power to levy taxes rather than the civil liberties the quotation has now become primarily associated with, the sentiment has become a rallying cry for critics of the surveillance state’s post-9/11 expansion.

A poll conducted by opinion research firm Anzalone Liszt Grove of 800 American registered voters found an overwhelming majority were in favor of supporting privacy rights over security concerns.

The poll, done on the behalf of Microsoft and released this week, showed that 67 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “Americans shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom for safety from crime and terrorism,” while only 25 percent said they believed the opposite. 75 percent said that there needs to be some degree of balance, ?between the ability to fight crime and our constitutional right to privacy.”

The pollsters went on to ask a number of questions relating to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that law enforcement officials first need to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a suspect’s cellphone. Just under half of the respondents had heard of the ruling and 83 percent both agreed with the court’s decision and said that personal information stored on the cloud should be subject to the same protections as that which is stored on paper.

There were also a number of questions relating to the U.S. government’s ability to force a private company to turn over information about its users if that data is stored on a server located outside of its territorial boundaries. 

The survey found that 79 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the federal government should have to respect local privacy laws when trying to search through people’s personal information like their email accounts.” In a follow-up question, 56 percent said they were worried that, by the U.S. government setting a precedent of being able to demand information held by private companies in other countries without going through those countries’ governments, it could lead to foreign governments doing the same thing in the United States.

Microsoft’s interest in this particular issue may not be entirely dispassionate.

Last December, a judge in New York ordered Microsoft to turn over emails of one of the users of the company’s cloud-based email service. Microsoft refused because the information was physically being held at a data center in Dublin, Ireland, arguing that a judge in the United States lacked the requisite authority to unilaterally issue a search warrant for records held outside of the country. Microsoft contested the warrant, but in April, it ended up losing an appeal on the issue.

Even so, the company has vowed to continue to fight the U.S. government’s ability to obtain information held abroad. For Microsoft, a company that’s currently in the process of remaking itself into something optimized for what CEO Satya Nadella called a ?cloud-first world,” the ability to assure its clients that their data will be safe from being accessed by the U.S. government’s globally unpopular surveillance and law enforcement apparatus is a major selling point.

Last month, Microsoft announced that it would allow its non-U.S. cloud storage customers to choose where their data is held. 

“People should have the ability to know whether their data are being subjected to the laws and access of governments in some other country and should have the ability to make an informed choice of where their data resides,” General Counsel Brad Smith told the Financial Times.

As a result, the U.S. government successfully asserted a global jurisdiction to collect information from private companies—a move that’s undoubtedly bad for American multinationals in the cloud computing business. So, the survey’s finding that only 32 percent of American voters think that U.S. law enforcement officials should be able to obtain the emails of a non-U.S. citizen stored in a foreign country without informing that citizen of the government where the emails are stored is likely a feather in the company’s cap.

You can check out the full results of the survey here.

H/T Politico’s Morning Tech | Photo by Håkan Dahlström/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 19, 2014, 8:00 am CDT