Why (most) Brits don’t seem to be overly concerned about NSA snooping

I had an inquiry yesterday from a German journalist asking whether it was true that British people are less concerned than Germans are about the Snowden revelations, and if so why.

Here’s my reply:

Dear [xxx]

1. I think it’s broadly true that, in general, the British public is less concerned about the NSA/Snowden revelations than is the case in Germany. That, at any rate, is the conclusion I draw from the only national opinion polling data I’ve seen — conducted by YouGov and published online.

My reading of the survey results is that

  • the great British public isn’t very worked up about the issues.
  • British people are pretty resigned to being surveilled.
  • My reasons for thinking this:

  • When asked whether the law should be changed to give the security services easy access to phone and online activity, 51% thought that would be going too far, but 39% thought it would be a good idea.
  • When asked how much personal data people thought the security services already had access to, 44% replied “almost everything in practice” and 48% thought that the security services had “wide access to a lot” of personal information.
  • People seem to be slightly supportive of Snowden’s whistleblowing. Just over half (52%) said that he had done the right thing, while 37% thought he had been wrong to do it.
  • On the question of whether Snowden should be prosecuted, people are evenly divided (43% each way).
  • Finally, and perhaps most revealingly, when people were asked if they were surprised by the revelations that Britain’s government surveillance organisation GCHQ had also been monitoring Internet traffic, only 2% said that they had been “very surprised”, 14% were “somewhat surprised” but 83% said that they had been “not at all surprised”.
  • 2. The interesting question, of course, is why the British view differs from that of Germans. Here I can only offer a few speculations.

  • It is partly a reflection the conviction (some would call it a delusion?) that Britain enjoys a “special relationship” with the US, and that this means Britons tend to be more tolerant of US excesses than they are of the excesses of other nations (e.g. Russia or France).
  • There is undoubtedly a special relationship between the security agencies of the UK (GCHQ) and the US (NSA). Some people see this as a continuation of the World War II intelligence-sharing arrangements between the two countries. Cynics see it as an attempt by an economically-enfeebled country to maintain a seat at the “top table” by being useful to the Americans. (Some commentators interpret the British government’s determination to renew its submarine nuclear ‘deterrent’ as an analogous case of “imperial afterglow” — the reluctance to concede that Britain is now just a middle-rank power.) One of my academic colleagues who is an expert in computer security occasionally refers dismissively to GCHQ as “an overseas franchise of the NSA”.
  • The problem of the “Two Cultures” (science and technology). The British public — and particularly its mass media — seems remarkably ignorant about science and technology. Critically, this is also true of British legislators. Of the 600+ MPs in the House of Commons, for example, only three have research degrees. As a result, lay people — and legislators — think that anything connected with computer technology is essentially incomprehensible and best left to experts.
  • Britain has no recent historical experience of being invaded, and so the culture has no clear understanding of the consequences of intensive surveillance technology and records falling into the “wrong” hands.
  • Yours sincerely