Revelations by Edward Snowden of U.S. National Security Agency spying have exposed 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 National Security Agency may have gone too far in spying on U.S. allies. They also think that the NSA has intruded on Americans’ personal privacy in scooping up massive amounts of private phone calls and emails. 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 U.S. 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 trans-Atlantic relations, Europeans’ perceptions of the U.S., especially as a stalwart defender of individual freedom, may face new strains.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans said it is unacceptable for the U.S. to monitor the phone calls of the leaders of allied nations, including Merkel. Just 36 percent said it is a tolerable practice.
American wariness of NSA activities may, in part, reflect concern about a possible invasion of their own privacy. In a mid-July Washington Post-ABC News survey, 49 percent said they thought that the NSA surveillance program intruded on their personal privacy rights. And 74 percent said it infringed on some Americans’ privacy, if not their own.
Nevertheless, when asked to balance security worries against privacy concerns, Americans opt for security. In that same Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57 percent felt that it was important for the federal government to investigate terrorist threats, even if it intrudes on personal freedom. Just 39 percent said that the government should not intrude on personal privacy, even if it limits the government’s ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.
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 percent), France (52 percent) and Sweden (52 percent) 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 by TNS Opinion for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. A substantial minority, or 44 percent, of people in the United Kingdom agree. In this survey, 54 percent of Americans surveyed suggested that such activity would go too far in violating citizens’ privacy and is therefore not justified.
Another difference emerged in this survey between American and European attitudes toward spying on one’s allies. Publics on both sides of the Atlantic think national security is no justification for action, but it’s a sentiment held more strongly by some Europeans than by Americans. A strong majority of Germans (72 percent) and more than half the French and the Swedes (each 55 percent) did not think that governments are justified in collecting telephone and internet data of citizens in other allied countries even as part of an effort to protect national security, according to the TNS/GMF survey. More British, 43 percent, thought it was unjustified than saw it as justified, 30 percent. Notably, American attitudes resembled those of the British – 44 percent unjustified, 33 percent justified.
The exposure of NSA spying has had an impact on America’s image abroad, especially in Europe. In spring 2013, before extensive revelations of NSA activities, a median of 62 percent in five European Union nations – the U.K., France, Germany, Poland and Spain – had a favorable view of the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center survey. That included 76 percent for Italians, 64 percent for the French and 53 percent for Germans.
That median was already in decline, down from 67 percent in 2009. It’s unclear whether the NSA affair will accelerate that erosion or prove a minor bump in the road in trans-Atlantic relations. But there are some early warning signs. A recent poll by the German public broadcaster, ARD and the German daily Die Welt, found that only 35 percent of Germans consider the U.S. government trustworthy.
Moreover, the U.S. government’s respect for individual liberty has long been a strong suit of American public diplomacy. Even in nations where opposition to U.S. foreign policy is widespread and where overall ratings for the U.S. are low, majorities or pluralities maintained that the country respects individual rights.
In the 2013 Pew Research Center survey, a median of 70 percent of people in 39 nations thought the U.S. government respected the personal freedoms of its people. In contrast, a median of only 36 percent saw China protecting individual liberties.
This view of America as a resolute defender of civil rights was particularly strong in Europe: Italy (82 percent), Germany (81 percent), France (80 percent) and Spain (69 percent). 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 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 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 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 such as Google, 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 analyze large sets of data. They argue that quarantining such information within national borders will deny future generations many economic benefits to be gained from big data.
The trans-Atlantic 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. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2013, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.