Throughout history, governments have exploited or collected data on their citizens—from benign data, like salary information and census records, to creepy data, like biometric records for law enforcement activities. With abortion rights under attack in the U.S., privacy experts are warning about the potential for the government to collect and use cell phone data to target and prosecute pregnant people and those seeking abortion. Over the past year the FBI made more than three million warrantless queries on the data of U.S. residents collected by both the government and private companies.
A shrinking share of Americans support such warrantless government surveillance. Yet we have not effectively advocated against the growing surveillance of our personal data. That’s because we aren’t taking a principled view on government surveillance as a whole. Instead, we are starting to see viewpoints devolve into ostracization and hatred of the “other.”
Our original research suggests that Americans’ fears about government surveillance change based on who is in power and what we fear that political party may do with our data. These fears cloud the issue at hand: If we want more control over our own privacy, then we need to put our focus towards what data the government collects and what they do with that data. But, despite bipartisan support of laws limiting data collection and privacy, legislators’ efforts to stop government surveillance have floundered.
To protect our privacy we need to focus on the laws and programs that enable data collection on Americans. These laws and programs stay constant even as administrations shift. This is because a constellation of government agencies, courts and laws together govern how we are surveilled. Instead of trusting or distrusting government surveillance based on whether the party we affiliate with is in power, Americans need to demand transparency into how the government as a whole is gaining access to their data and what they are doing with it.
Conventional discourse treats the government as a faceless entity, whose decisions are abstracted away from the people who make them. We use language like “the government obtained a warrant” or “the government mandated.” We conjure images of large bureaucratic institutions veiled behind windowless, brutalist buildings which make decisions.
But when it comes to data gathering and privacy, those people and institutions are more nuanced. To better understand how the 2020 presidential election changed how people think about government surveillance, our team of researchers at the University of Maryland and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems surveyed Americans about their privacy opinions in the summers of 2020 and 2021.
Under a Republican administration in 2020, self-reported Republicans were 9 perentage points more likely than Democrats to be okay with the government collecting data on them to prevent terrorism. At that time, Republicans were also more accepting of DNA-testing companies sharing their customers’ genetic data with law enforcement to aid in solving crimes, likely because Republicans view the police as protectors, particularly when their party is in power.
But, after the election of Joe Biden in 2020, opinions flipped. When surveyed in 2021, Republicans’ tolerance of both these forms of government surveillance grew weaker, and Democrats’ tolerance grew stronger; now, Democrats were 9 percentage points more likely than Republicans to be okay with the government collecting data on them to prevent terrorism. This suggests that Americans are more willing to accept the government collecting data on them when their politics align with the president’s, even though the data being gathered may be put to the same use.
Even controlling for other factors like age, gender, race, ethnicity and level of education, opinions flipped after the 2020 election.
Understanding what’s happening to our personal data and how to regain control of it is hard. When faced with a hard problem, we use mental shortcuts called heuristics to help us make decisions without fully understanding everything about the problem we’re facing. When it comes to government surveillance, we’re relying on political trust—trust of our political party—instead of trying to understand what’s actually happening with our data.
Trust is central to privacy. If I trust you, I am willing to share or disclose information with you. My trust in you reduces how vulnerable I feel about the fact that you know private information about me.
And while we generally trust our own political party, the decisions about what happens to our data are rarely made by the president, and are even more rarely publicly disclosed.
The U.S. government is notoriously opaque about what personal data it collects and what it does with the data. When Edward Snowden exposed extensive phone and Internet surveillance on millions of Americans by the U.S. intelligence community in 2013, there was outrage. But Republicans were more concerned than Democrats, likely another result of political trust, since these revelations happened when former President Obama was in office and Democrats held a Senate majority.
Our fear of what the opposing party might do with our data is driving us to change our opinions, which doesn’t make sense given the structure of the government.
We have the ability to politically unite on better privacy legislation. In fact, one of the few topics on which political representatives join together is protecting their constituents’ privacy from technology companies, even if political representatives won’t limit government surveillance.
Technology companies vacuum up customer data and use such data to tailor their products, services and, of course, advertisements. Facebook, Google and Amazon collect your browsing history, location, financial information and birthday to make it more likely that you click on their ads. Despite today’s politically polarized atmosphere, a majority of Americans agree that Congress should pass a federal privacy law as soon as possible to protect consumer data from tech companies.
We need the same advocacy for transparency about government surveillance as for surveillance by tech companies. In a sign of progress, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed for the first time in April how intelligence agencies are surveilling Americans and how many people’s data they are querying. We need a bipartisan push for more transparency like this to empower Americans to develop an informed opinion about government surveillance and advocate for their privacy.
Surveillance is surveillance, no matter which political party does it. Treating the data gathered by one party as more benign than that collected by the other side will only serve to increase the privacy-infringing powers of current and future governments. Using political trust as a heuristic to form opinions on government surveillance is a smokescreen that distracts us from potential government overreach that can infringe upon the rights of both sides of the aisle.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.