Americans really want to reform the Patriot Act to curb NSA spying

abstract art of surveillance camera

Nobody likes the NSA anymore.

Americans really dislike NSA spying.

That’s the overarching message of a new poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union that found broad support for reforming provisions of the USA Patriot Act that govern the surveillance Americans’ electronic communications. 

The survey found that 60 percent of Americans believe the law should be modified “to limit government surveillance and protect Americans’ privacy” rather than be reauthorized in its current form.

First enacted in the wake of 9/11, the Patriot Act is set to expire next month. Section 215 of the legislation has long been used to authorize a National Security Agency program that collects the call records of Americans, a justification recently ruled invalid by a federal appeals court.

A number of bills are currently working their way through Congress that would either reauthorize the Patriot Act as-is or reform key sections related to NSA surveillance.

Antipathy to the Patriot Act crosses party lines, with nearly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans—59 percent and 58 percent, respectively—wanting the law to be changed. Opposition to reauthorization without changes was notably higher among independents, at 71 percent.

Among both genders, all age groups, and people who listed themselves as either “very liberal” or “very conservative,” well over half of respondents said they supported introducing more privacy-protecting language into the legislation.

The survey also found that 82 percent of respondents were concerned about government programs “collecting and storing the personal information of Americans.” Similar numbers of people agreed with statements asserting that law enforcement officials should have a warrant before obtaining someone’s email or phone records, that inserting backdoors for government surveillance in technology products renders those products less safe across the board, and that the contents of personal conversations between Americans should be private from governmental eavesdropping.

The survey was conducted by the Global Strategy Group and G2 Public Strategies. Pollsters interviewed 1,001 adult Americans who were likely to vote in the next election.

The public’s attitude firmly against the Patriot Act is a major shift from the years after the law was initially enacted. A 2004 Gallup survey found that only 26 percent of Americans believed the Patriot Act went too far “in restricting people’s civil liberties to fight terrorism.”

A bill reforming the law called the USA Freedom Act, which would shift the bulk collection of telephone metadata from government hands to those of private wireless carriers, passed the House of Representatives, but it is still waiting on approval in the Senate.

As the results of the ACLU’s recent poll suggest, opposition to government surveillance is an issue that cuts across traditional party lines. The ACLU, which has a long history of activism on the left, joined with the conservative Tea Party Patriots group to create this video about the need to reform the Patriot Act.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.