Research Impacts - Polls

Public Ambivalent on Surveillance Program

Release Date: 6/13/2013

Surveillance Program Effective, but Public Fears Government Snooping

By Seth Brohinsky and Mark Schulman

Americans are conflicted about the federal government’s counter-terrorism PRISM program, which collects data on people’s telephone records, internet traffic and emails.

According to a new Time Magazine poll, Americans are divided on the surveillance program, with 48% approving and 44% expressing disapproval. The telephone poll was conducted by Abt SRBI on June 10-11 with a representative sample of 805 Americans.

PRISM Program Seen as Somewhat Effective

Americans largely agree that the surveillance program has been effective.
  • About 2 in 3 Americans (64%) agree that the government surveillance program has done a great deal (11%) or some (52%) to protect the country from terrorist attacks. 
  • Only 14% believe the program has done nothing to prevent terrorist attacks.
Fear of “Big Brother” Snooping
One reason for the ambivalence is that many fear that the government will abuse the surveillance data. Nearly two-thirds (63%) are” very” or “somewhat concerned” that the government will use the information to snoop into people’s private lives; with one-third (32%) saying they are ‘very concerned’.
  • The issue of government misuse of information is divided along party lines:
    • Four in five Republicans (78%) and two-thirds of Independents (67%) are concerned about misuse versus just 43% of Democrats.
Democrats More Supportive
Support is strongest among: 
  • Democrats – 58% approve;
  • Those not following news of the PRISM program closely – 55% approve; and
  • Women – 52% approve

A clear majority (57%) of Republicans disapprove of the surveillance program.

PRISM Program Approval
Overall, do you personally approve or disapprove of the federal government’s policy of collecting phone dialing records, emails, and internet search records in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks?
  Total Republicans Democrats Independents
Approve 48% 39% 58% 50%
Disapprove 44% 57% 33% 43%
No Answer/Don't Know 8% 4% 9% 6%

Though Americans are divided on whether or not they approve of the program, nearly two-thirds (64%) are following developments closely. 
  • Republicans (74%) and Independents (70%) are following news reports of the PRISM program more closely than Democrats (58%).
Fear Program is More Widespread; Plurality Favor Cutting Back
Adding to the public’s skepticism is a widespread concern (76%) that the program is bigger and more widespread than is currently being reported. Congressional or judicial oversight of the program produces little additional support  (20%) for the program
A plurality (43%) agree that the government should be cutting back on programs that threaten privacy, while just one in five (20%) believe the government should be doing more to prevent terrorism.

Public Skepticism of Surveillance Program
  Surveillance program is bigger and more widespread than we know now Government will be forced to reduce or eliminate the surveillance program The courts will overturn the program and put a stop to it
Yes 76% 32% 23%
No 16% 58% 65%
No Answer/Don't Know 8% 10% 12%


Leaks Should be Prosecuted, but Whistleblower Seen as Doing Good

There is bipartisan support for prosecution of government officials who leak classified material:

  • 59% of Democrats, 58% of Republicans and 50% of Independents agree that such leaks should be prosecuted.

However, young people are less likely to agree…

  • Young Americans (18-34 years old) are divided on whether the government should prosecute government officials who leak information than think the government should prosecute (43% should vs. 41% should not).

While American’s may feel that the leaking of classified information should be prosecuted, most (54%) think that Edward Snowden did a good thing when he leaked information about the government’s surveillance program.

  • Nearly three-quarters (70%) of young people think he did a good thing.
  • In addition, more Americans who have followed news of the PRISM program closely think he did a good thing than those who have not followed the news closely (56% vs. 51%).
Did Leaker Do a Good Thing or Bad Thing?
  Total Age 18-34 Age 35-54 Age 55+
Good Thing 54% 70% 50% 47%
Bad Thing 30% 19% 34% 33%
(VOL) Depends 9% 7% 7% 13%
(VOL) Don't Know 7% 4% 10% 7%


Abt SRBI Public Affairs designed the survey and conducted all interviewing. The full Time Poll questionnaire and trend data may be found at:
This Time Magazine poll was conducted by telephone June 10 – 11, 2013 among a national random sample of 805 Americans, ages 18 and older, throughout America. The poll included users of both conventional and cellular phones.  Poll data were weighted to account for phone service.
The margin of error for the entire sample is approximately +/- 4 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups. Surveys are subject to other error sources as well, including sampling coverage error, recording error, and respondent error.

Time Magazine Surveillance Poll Questionnaire and Data