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Is Obama the privacy candidate?

Americans think Barack Obama is the Democrat most likely to advance their privacy rights and that Rudy Giuliani is the least privacy-sensitive of the top three Republican candidates, a new survey suggests.

The telephone poll of 600 adults, conducted by private research firm The Ponemon Institute, also found that 40 percent of Americans say protection of privacy rights is either important or very important in determining preference for the next presidential election.

Asked to select both the Democratic and Republican candidate they believe is most likely to "advance your privacy rights," respondents preferred Obama over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, with 43 percent naming Obama compared to 25 percent for Edwards and 23 percent for Clinton.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

On the Republican side, John McCain was the top choice, named by 39 percent of respondents, but Mitt Romney's 35 percent was within the poll's margin of error. Rudy Giuliani was picked by 15 percent of those polled, with Ron Paul and Fred Thompson each named by less than 5 percent.

Ponemon, who conducts privacy-related surveys for corporations, said he was somewhat surprised by the results on the Democratic side. Of the three candidates, all current or former U.S. senators, only Clinton has sponsored privacy-related legislation. Yet she ranked last among the candidates, he noted.

"For Obama, even though he too is a senator, perhaps he's seen as new blood,” Ponemon said. “Perhaps they see Clinton and even Edwards as old school, and they won't do anything to advance privacy rights.

MSNBC Special Report: Privacy Lost

Read the complete survey (Requires Adobe Acrobat)

Ponemon said he was not surprised that Giuliani scored lowest among major candidates, since the former New York mayor is often associated with national security issues.

"People see him as pro-security, pro-surveillance, pro-wiretapping, and they figure if he's doing that he's not making privacy a top priority," Ponemon said.

Lee Rainie, who as director of the Pew Internet & American Life project has conducted several privacy-related studies, said Pew had not yet examined how privacy sentiments relate to the presidential candidates. But he said he wasn’t surprised at the results of the Ponemon poll. There seems to be an inverse relationship between national security and privacy, he said; the more a candidate talks about the war on terror, the less than candidate sounds like a privacy advocate.

"It sounds like the axis on which people are basing their first judgment is on the surveillance issue," he said. "People who are thinking in those terms ... may think someone who is associated with surveillance or the war on terror might not be as privacy-oriented."

Privacy polls hard to interpret

Polling on issue like privacy is a challenge, which makes interpreting survey results difficult, said privacy law expert Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University and author of several privacy-related books, including the newly published "The Future of Reputation."

"When you ask a question that broad ... I don't even know if I could answer that question if I got polled," Solove said. "Some candidates might be strong on identity theft or information sharing but not on national security and privacy, for example."

For many voters, he explained, consumer privacy issues -- such as the collection of information by companies -- are viewed very differently from civil liberties issues like surveillance. When you ask about privacy, it's hard to precisely define the term.

"The question is, when (poll takers) say privacy, what do people think of?"

Ponemon’s poll produced other surprises. It suggested young voters are more privacy-sensitive than previously believed. Among 18- to 28-year-olds, the MySpace-Facebook generation, 54 percent said privacy issues would be a factor in determining their choice for president, significantly higher than the 40 percent rating among the general population.

Previous polls indicated that younger tech consumers tend to be less worried about privacy than older Americans, Rainie said.

Ponemon's poll-takers also asked more-specific questions concerning privacy. Among the responses:

• 58 percent of adults said the protection of civil liberties will factor into their presidential choice.

• 25 percent said the protection of Internet anonymity will be a factor in their decision.

• 25 percent said protection from annoying and intrusive online marketing practices will be a factor.