Americans Favor Safety Over Privacy, Though Majority Recognize Need for Balance

    New York , N.Y. – August 5, 2014 – The right to privacy (or lack thereof) and the protection from unreasonable searches have been under increased discussion over the past year, triggered, in part, by revelations of widespread NSA surveillance practices. While online privacy has been the latest front in this battle, Americans continue to have widely diverse opinions on what level of privacy they’re guaranteed in a variety of settings and while under various types of suspicion.

    These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,286 adults surveyed online between May 14 and 19, 2014. This look at the Fourth Amendment is part of an ongoing series examining American attitudes towards the Bill of Rights.

    Safety over privacy – to a point

    When asked to weigh safety against privacy by means of a four-point scale, relatively low percentages of Americans chose either of the absolute perspectives – that either the privacy (13%) or safety (10%) of Americans is sacred, and should be maintained no matter what. The strongest percentage by far (51%) feels that safety is more important, though both should be considered in cases where they conflict, though it’s worth noting that when adding in the 25% who favor privacy in this same moderate fashion, roughly three-fourths believe both should be considered in cases where they conflict. These perspectives hold across generational and political spectrums, though differences do emerge by gender. Men are more likely to favor privacy at both the absolute (sacred and should be maintained no matter what – 19% vs. 9%) and moderate ( more important than safety, but both should be considered – 30% vs. 21%) levels, while women are more likely to feel that safety is more important, but that both should be considered (62% vs. 40%).

    Pockets of privacy

    But where can we expect a right to privacy, anyway? Strong majorities of Americans recognize that our homes in general (87%), our bodies (85%) and our bedrooms (82%) are subject to privacy rights, while six in ten (61%) believe our cars also are subject to the right to privacy. Just under half of Americans believe there is a right to privacy when they are a guest in a home (47%) or a passenger in a car (46%) and a third (34%) erroneously believe a locker (if in school) is legally private. Five percent (5%) of U.S. adults don’t feel Americans have a right to privacy in any of these places.

    • Men are more likely than women to feel that cars are subject to an expectation of privacy (64% vs. 58%).
    • Looking across generations, Matures (58%) are more likely than either Millennials (43%) or Gen Xers (45%) to feel Americans have a legal right to privacy when they are guests in a home.

    But constitutionally granted protections have limits, and there are grounds allowed by our laws to grant legal, enforceable searches. While the gold standard – as recognized by both our laws and by U.S. adults within this study – is a search warrant signed by a judge, many Americans feel some searches are permissible in other situations as well. Majorities of Americans feel that reasonable suspicion of a danger to public welfare justifies searching a student’s locker (59%), personal effects such as a backpack or purse (56%), a vehicle in its entirety (55%) or specific parts of a vehicle (53%). Reasonable suspicion that something illegal will be found is seen by a majority of Americans as justifying searching a student’s locker (55%).

    Looking across the various places and possessions Americans were asked about in the course of this survey, it’s worth noting that in most situations, personal electronics and online content are among those Americans most see as protected, in that they are less likely to see most tested justifications as worthy of triggering a legal search.

    When is suspicion reasonable?

    But what is a reasonable suspicion, anyway? When presented with several situations and asked which constitute reasonable suspicion grounds for a legal search, responses varied greatly, with some grounds passing muster and others falling well short. Seven in ten U.S. adults (70%) see a sworn statement as passing the reasonable suspicion test, while nearly two-thirds say the same of erratic driving (65%) and six in ten say past conviction for a violent crime provides reasonable suspicion grounds (61%). Slimmer majorities say the same of evasive behavior (56%), records indicating contact with a criminal suspect (53%), and a past conviction for a drug-related crime (52%).

    Minorities feel a reasonable suspicion can be justified via past suspicion of illegal activity (40%), an anonymous tip (29%), past conviction for a nonviolent crime (23%), or a minor automotive infraction (14%).

    • Matures (51%) are more likely than their younger counterparts (36% Millennials, 39% Gen Xers, 40% Baby Boomers) to see past suspicion of illegal activity as justifying a reasonable suspicion, while Millennials are more likely than their elders to say this of an anonymous tip (36% Millennials, 26% Gen Xers, 27% Baby Boomers, 22% Matures).
    • Women are more likely than men to see most of the hurdles tested as passing muster for reasonable suspicion, including past conviction for a violent crime (65% women vs. 56% men), records indicating contact with a criminal suspect (59% vs. 47%), and past suspicion of illegal activity (45% vs. 35%).
    • Looking at the issue across political lines, Republicans are more likely than either Democrats or Independents to see a sworn statement (78%, 69% and 68%, respectively) and records indicating contact with a criminal suspect (61%, 50% and 50%) as grounds for a reasonable suspicion. Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to feel evasive behavior (62% vs. 53%) is sufficient to pass this test.

     

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    TABLE 1

    PERCEIVED GROUNDS FOR LEGAL SEARCHES

    Now thinking about something different, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution’s Bill of Rights reads as follows: ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ Now, considering this wording as well as anything you might know or have heard about the Fourth Amendment, which of these, if any, do you believe are grounds for a legal search of each of the following? Please select all that apply.

    Base: U.S. Adults

     

    Any (NET)

    A search warrant signed by a judge

    Reasonable suspicion that there is a danger to public welfare at stake

    Reasonable suspicion that they will find something illegal (e.g., drugs, stolen merchandise)

    Reasonable suspicion that they will find valuable information in a criminal investigation

    A search warrant approved by a high ranking police officer

    None of these

    Personal effects (e.g., backpack, purse)

    %

    86

    75

    56

    49

    42

    39

    14

    A vehicle in its entirety

    %

    86

    78

    55

    40

    39

    27

    14

    A student’s locker in a school

    %

    86

    73

    59

    55

    44

    37

    14

    Specifically identified parts of a home

    %

    86

    70

    45

    37

    35

    34

    14

    Specific parts of a vehicle (e.g., automobile, SUV)

    %

    85

    69

    53

    43

    41

    37

    15

    Personal electronics (e.g., smartphone, laptop)

    %

    84

    70

    46

    25

    37

    20

    16

    Specific parts of a place of business

    %

    84

    67

    44

    35

    35

    32

    16

    A home in its entirety

    %

    83

    72

    48

    30

    29

    17

    17

    Online content (e.g., email, social media history)

    %

    82

    71

    48

    22

    36

    19

    18

    A place of business in its entirety

    %

    82

    66

    48

    31

    30

    18

    18

    Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding


    TABLE 2a

    PERCEIVED AS REASONABLE SUSPICION GROUNDS FOR A LEGAL SEARCH

    Reasonable Suspicion Responses by Generation & Gender

    Which of the following represent, to you, ‘reasonable suspicion’ grounds for a legal search?

    Base: U.S. Adults

    Total

    Generation

    Gender

    Millennials (18-36)

    Gen X (37-48)

    Baby Boomers (49-67)

    Matures (68+)

    Men

    Women

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    A sworn statement

    70

    68

    66

    72

    76

    70

    70

    Erratic driving

    65

    63

    68

    66

    65

    62

    68

    Past conviction for a violent crime

    61

    60

    58

    61

    69

    56

    65

    Evasive behavior

    56

    54

    56

    58

    54

    55

    57

    Records indicating contact with a criminal suspect

    53

    57

    47

    52

    59

    47

    59

    Past conviction for a drug-related crime

    52

    52

    49

    51

    62

    49

    55

    Past suspicion of illegal activity

    40

    36

    39

    40

    51

    35

    45

    An anonymous tip

    29

    36

    26

    27

    22

    26

    32

    Past conviction for a nonviolent crime

    23

    26

    22

    21

    22

    22

    24

    A minor automotive infraction (e.g., rolling through a stop sign, broken tail lamp

    14

    18

    15

    10

    12

    14

    14

     

    TABLE 2b

    PERCEIVED AS REASONABLE SUSPICION GROUNDS FOR A LEGAL SEARCH

    Reasonable Suspicion Responses by Political Party & Political Philosophy

    Which of the following represent, to you, ‘reasonable suspicion’ grounds for a legal search?

    Base: U.S. Adults

    Total

    Political Party

    Political Philosophy

    Rep.

    Dem.

    Ind.

    Cons.

    Mod.

    Lib.

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    A sworn statement

    70

    78

    69

    68

    72

    70

    67

    Erratic driving

    65

    68

    62

    67

    65

    67

    62

    Past conviction for a violent crime

    61

    64

    61

    58

    64

    61

    55

    Evasive behavior

    56

    62

    53

    56

    60

    58

    46

    Records indicating contact with a criminal suspect

    53

    61

    50

    50

    58

    53

    48

    Past conviction for a drug-related crime

    52

    56

    51

    50

    57

    54

    42

    Past suspicion of illegal activity

    40

    40

    42

    35

    42

    42

    34

    An anonymous tip

    29

    31

    30

    27

    31

    28

    28

    Past conviction for a nonviolent crime

    23

    26

    22

    21

    24

    23

    24

    A minor automotive infraction (e.g., rolling through a stop sign, broken tail lamp

    14

    16

    13

    13

    13

    15

    12

     

    TABLE 3a

    PRIVACY/SAFETY BELIEFS

    By Generation & Gender

    Which of the following most closely fits with your beliefs?

    Base: U.S. Adults

    Total

    Generation

    Gender

    Millennials (18-36)

    Gen X (37-48)

    Baby Boomers (49-67)

    Matures (68+)

    Men

    Women

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    Americans’ privacy is sacred, and should be maintained no matter what.

    13

    15

    16

    11

    11

    19

    9

    Americans’ privacy is more important than their safety, but both should be considered in cases where they conflict.

    25

    27

    27

    24

    23

    30

    21

    Americans’ safety is more important than their privacy, but both should be considered in cases where they conflict.

    51

    49

    46

    55

    56

    40

    62

    Americans’ safety is sacred, and should be maintained no matter what.

    10

    10

    10

    10

    11

    12

    8

    Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

     

    TABLE 3b

    PRIVACY/SAFETY BELIEFS

    By Political Party & Political Philosophy

    Which of the following most closely fits with your beliefs?

    Base: U.S. Adults

    Total

    Political Party

    Political Philosophy

    Rep.

    Dem.

    Ind.

    Cons.

    Mod.

    Lib.

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    Americans’ privacy is sacred, and should be maintained no matter what.

    13

    12

    13

    15

    17

    13

    11

    Americans’ privacy is more important than their safety, but both should be considered in cases where they conflict.

    25

    24

    25

    26

    24

    24

    31

    Americans’ safety is more important than their privacy, but both should be considered in cases where they conflict.

    51

    54

    53

    50

    49

    53

    49

    Americans’ safety is sacred, and should be maintained no matter what.

    10

    10

    10

    9

    11

    10

    9

    Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding

     

    TABLE 4a

    PLACES WHERE AMERICANS HAVE A RIGHT TO PRIVACY – by Generation & Gender

    Where do Americans have a right to privacy? Please select all that apply.

    Base: U.S. Adults

    Total

    Generation

    Gender

    Millennials (18-36)

    Gen X (37-48)

    Baby Boomers (49-67)

    Matures (68+)

    Men

    Women

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    Any (NET)

    95

    95

    95

    95

    96

    96

    95

    Their homes in general

    87

    83

    88

    88

    90

    88

    86

    Their bodies

    85

    84

    83

    87

    83

    83

    87

    Their bedrooms

    82

    80

    80

    84

    84

    83

    81

    Their cars

    61

    65

    57

    62

    56

    64

    58

    When they are a guest in a home

    47

    43

    45

    49

    58

    47

    48

    When they are a passenger in a car

    46

    44

    44

    48

    50

    47

    45

    Their locker if in school

    34

    36

    29

    35

    40

    34

    34

    None of these

    5

    5

    5

    5

    4

    4

    5

    Note: Multiple responses allowed

     

    TABLE 4b

    PLACES WHERE AMERICANS HAVE A RIGHT TO PRIVACY – by Political Party & Political Philosophy

    Where do Americans have a right to privacy? Please select all that apply.

    Base: U.S. Adults

    Total

    Political Party

    Political Philosophy

    Rep.

    Dem.

    Ind.

    Cons.

    Mod.

    Lib.

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    %

    Any (NET)

    95

    95

    94

    97

    96

    95

    93

    Their homes in general

    87

    87

    87

    88

    90

    86

    84

    Their bodies

    85

    86

    83

    88

    86

    85

    84

    Their bedrooms

    82

    81

    82

    83

    84

    81

    80

    Their cars

    61

    62

    61

    60

    67

    56

    64

    When they are a guest in a home

    47

    47

    47

    50

    50

    45

    48

    When they are a passenger in a car

    46

    44

    48

    46

    48

    44

    48

    Their locker if in school

    34

    33

    36

    33

    37

    31

    38

    None of these

    5

    5

    6

    3

    4

    5

    7

    Note: Multiple responses allowed

     

    Methodology

    This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English,within the United States between May 14 and 19, 2014 among 2,286 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

    All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words margin of error as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

    Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

    These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

    The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

    Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

    The Harris Poll #77, August 5, 2014

    By Larry Shannon-Missal, Manager, Harris Poll Content