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Have you been wiretapped?

How worried are Americans that the federal government might listen in on their phone calls, or read their e-mails?  What’s more important, privacy or security? It depends, pollsters say, on how you ask the question. 

Last month's disclosure that the National Security Agency had eavesdropped on domestic communications created a media firestorm around the holidays, and this week, it becomes Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's problem. Domestic surveilliance now joins abortion as one of the hottest of topics at his Senate confirmation hearing.

But are Americans really concerned about such snooping?  Yes.  And no.  To many people, government peeks at e-mails and phone calls are old news, some research suggests. For others, it’s OK for government officials to snoop, as long as they're snooping on other people. In other words, it depends.

In fact, it depends on the words in the question.  Ask Americans something like, “Should the government be allowed to read e-mails and listen to phone calls to fight terrorism?” and you’ll get a much different result than if you ask, “Should the government be allowed to read your e-mails and listen to your phone calls to fight terrorism.”

It'll be interesting to see how Judge Alito handles that rhetoric.

In 2002, The Pew Research Center for People and The Press asked just those questions -- and by simply dropping the word “your,” the number of people willing to support such government snooping jumped by 50 percent. Only 22 percent were willing to let the government peek when it was personal, but 33 percent were willing when it sounded like only someone’s else privacy was at risk, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for Pew.

Such fine distinctions are typical in the security vs. privacy debate, he said, which makes it a minefield for pollsters.

“These issues bring up very conflicting values that people hold. People want to be safe and they want their privacy. People really carry around both of these impulses,” he said. “That makes polling on this kind of tough. If the question connects to privacy, maybe people will tilt that way, but if wording tilts towards security, people will tilt that way. That’s why this is such a controversial issue.”

One in 5 say they’ve been wiretapped

Muddying the waters even more is a fatalistic sense shared by many people that their privacy might all be lost, anyway.  In a telephone survey conducted in late December by The Ponemon Institute, one in five respondents said they believed their phone calls had already been wiretapped by the government at some point. And almost one-third said they believed the feds had monitored their e-mails and Web browsing. The study had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

Live Vote: Have you been wiretapped?

The Ponemon Institute monitors privacy issues, and the survey included only those who sign up to participate in telephone polls –- not the random sample method used by traditional political pollsters. But the results still suggest a large number of people believe the government is already watching them, and listening to them. 

"A lot of people think their privacy is somehow being abused and it doesn't seem to phase them," said Larry Ponemon, the founder of the institute. "If I thought that this were true I would be ticked off. For example, I wouldn't use my phone."

People's expectations about government monitoring have been set by television and science fiction, Ponemon said -– raising their impression that everything they do is being watched, and that technology makes this easy.  A fair amount of paranoia seems also present in the results, which are fantastic and impractical. Simply storing recorded phone calls for 1 in 5 Americans would be prohibitively expensive, and the task force needed to listen in on that many conversations would be impossibly large. Still, however fantastic, the results are consistent with research done by Scott Rasmussen, who has run several NSA-eavesdropping related polls for The Rasmussen Report.

In a study Rasmussen conducted between Christmas and New Year's, only 26 percent of respondents said they think President Bush is the first president to authorize such domestic spying. In other words, as Sun Microsystems's Scott McNealy once said, many Americans apparently think they lost their privacy long ago -- and they've gotten over it.

"There is a perception that this sort of activity goes on all the time. It's a normal part of government operations," Rasmussen said.  "The public does not see the current NSA program as particularly out of the ordinary."

Level of intrusion is growing

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, was only somewhat surprised by the results.  After all, he said, American consumers have been inundated with spyware, spam, computer viruses, and identity theft.  There is a general feeling of helplessness about personal privacy, he said, so it's not such a surprise that people would think the federal government has piled on.

"People are not necessarily sure what's going on with the gizmos of their lives," he said.  "There is a general feeling that the level of intrusion is growing."

But intrusion by Internet criminals is one thing; intrusion by the federal government is another.  There is little question that fighting terrorism, and virtually any law enforcement work, requires a delicate balancing of security and privacy issues. That is the debate that will be on display this week during the Alito hearings. Opponents of the nominee will try paint a picture of Alito as sympathetic to broad powers for the executive, and broad government surveillance efforts. In 1984, as an assistant to the solicitor general, Alito wrote a memo that defended the federal government’s right to order domestic wiretaps. In it, Aliot recommended federal officials be immune from lawsuits when they order such surveillance.  The memo will be a launching pad for the topic.

But it’s hard to say how the privacy issue will resonate with U.S. voters. Consumers constantly contradict themselves when asked about the subject, Rainie said. 

Individually torn

"People in the abstract say they are very concerned about their privacy," he said.  "But the minute you start adding context to the subject, it gets more complicated."

For example, many people jealously guard their personal medical information, and bristle at any hint that it might be made public. But ask that same person after a car accident, and they'll want as many medical professionals and family members as possible to know everything about their medical history.

"We are individually torn on this issue," he said. "In the heart of every American lurks a chamber that cherishes privacy ... but in the adjacent chamber, Americans want to be peeping Toms."

So it is with terrorism. People want the president to use all the powers of his office to prevent terrorists from harming Americans (56 percent in Ponemon's study), and they also want the president to use all the powers of his office to protect their privacy rights (78 percent).

The answer for this double-talk may lie, Rainie suggests, in a factor some sociologists call the "third person effect." Essentially, people want their own privacy preserved, but they figure it's OK for the government to violate someone else's privacy. 

"Most people figure they'll never be talking to someone from al-Qaeda, so it doesn't impact them personally," he said. "But the neighbor might be suspicious, so go ahead and listen in on him."