How much government snooping is okay?

Cyber cops will play a crucial role in the war on terrorism, say most Americans – and more than half are willing to forfeit some online privacy in order to thwart terrorists, according to a recent national survey.

The survey, sponsored by the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, evaluates how Americans see the role of “e-government,” meaning a more active online presence by law enforcement and governmental agencies. It finds that a majority of respondents believe e-government can help track terrorists and other criminals. Those polled also indicate they believe effective online action can foster coordination among federal agencies, as well as among levels of governments, particularly during crises.

The poll includes interviews with 500 government officials at the federal, state, and local levels. It also queried 900 adults nationwide, including 155 Internet users. The poll was conducted in November 2001 – just two months after the September attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

Approval, with concern

The fresh memory of the attacks is evident in the findings. Respondents expressed concern about communication among different levels of government, and about crime online.

For example, nine out of ten of the adults surveyed say they favor government-run Internet-based systems designed to help law enforcement agencies apprehend terrorists. What’s more, 57 per cent also say they are willing to give up some of their online privacy if it will help apprehend terrorists.

However, privacy concerns surface in other ways. The poll found no consensus on the proposal for national identity cards, for example. Forty-four per cent of the respondents contend that national identity cards would let the government track people in violation of their civil liberties and privacy, while 47 per cent support issuing identity cards. People under age 50 are more skeptical of the identity cards, with only 44 per cent supporting the concept compared with 52 per cent of those over age 50.

Also, 69 per cent respondents say that they are extremely concerned about identity theft on the Net, and 64 per cent worry about hacking.

Encouraging cooperation

Many respondents are open to more e-government activity. A majority encourage agencies and local, state, and federal governments to share information in an effort to combat terrorism.

“Our health and safety depend on seamless, secure communications” among various government agencies, but they now “operate a largely unintelligible maze of disparate data systems,” says Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government, a group of private sector leaders that advocates better government performance. She says 18,000 law enforcement agencies use national databases like automated fingerprint identification systems, but they are not integrated for use across agencies.

The respondents’ support for the role of e-government in fighting terrorism reflects their increasing use of the Internet to get information from or to deal with government agencies, says Peter Hart, head of the polling firm Peter D. Hart Associates, which often works with Democratic causes. His firm co-conducted the poll with Robert Teeter, who has worked with Republican candidates. They conducted the nationwide poll by telephone and on the Internet.

Use of the Internet has risen marginally from 63 per cent of respondents in a separate August 2000 poll, to 67 per cent in the recent survey, Hart says. Of those recently polled, 36 per cent had visited their state government site, compared with 28 per cent in August 2000.

“E-government used to be on the fringe, but in the last one year it has come into the mainstream,” says Al Edmonds, president of EDS U.S. Government Solutions, which sells technology services to the government.

Saumya Roy writes for the Medill News Service, a PC World affiliate.