Just over two years ago, on 5 June 2013, the first stories based on the documents Edward Snowden took from the NSA were published. Snowden became a household name as his exposé of Internet surveillance by the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK hit headlines across the World (as shown by the catalogue of work produced by Glenn Greenwald on the subject). A couple of years down the line and we have enough hindsight to see how his actions, and the revelations which followed, have impacted the debate on privacy and security, but we are also close enough to the events to still feel the ripples, as evidenced by the recent story in The Sunday Times and the subsequent fall-out. It seems fair to say that we are still in the initial stages of the public debate regarding Snowden’s actions and where the line between personal privacy and national security lies. Two years ‘post-Snowden’, how do people feel about what he did and how does this differ according to national identity and culture?
Over the last couple of weeks, I have conducted three online surveys of 3,000 people in the UK, the US and Germany. I asked 1,000 people in each country one simple question: “what do you think of Edward Snowden?” and gave them the options of ‘hero’, ‘traitor’, ‘I have no opinion’ or ‘other’ for their answer.
It is no surprise that the findings vary according to the country (and within each country according to demographics, which I will cover in subsequent articles).
What do people think?
In Germany, 39.5% of the respondents labelled Snowden a hero, whereas only 5.8% thought him a traitor. There is a parallel with the UK in that people here are also more likely to think of him as a hero than a traitor, but this is on a much smaller scale, with 18.5% labelling him a hero and 8.6% a traitor. This contrasts to the US where results for both categories were much closer, but a few more people labelled him a traitor than a hero: 19.7% compared to 17.9%.
However, there is one consistency running through all of the results: in each survey, the majority of respondents answered ‘I have no opinion’. In the UK this was the most common response by far, selected by 70.4% of the 1,000 respondents, followed by the US at 59.7% and Germany at 52.6%.
Aside from the large majority of people, in each survey, selecting ‘no opinion’ the biggest response was from the German survey (the 39.5% of people who think he’s a hero) and the second biggest is from the US survey (the 19.7% of people who think he’s a traitor).
There was a small proportion of each sample, between 2% and 3%, who selected ‘other’. Their reasons varied but included not knowing who he was, thinking he did the right thing but the wrong way, being in two minds, and not feeling like they know enough to make a judgement.
Why do they think that?
Given the socio-political context of these three countries, to some extent the varied answers are not so surprising. Germany’s experience of the abuse of data at the hands of Nazism has shaped a cultural context in which mass surveillance of the population is not generally regarded as acceptable. Citizens here are more likely to have an opinion on Snowden’s actions, and it is more likely to be a favourable one. This was evidenced by Germany’s political response to Snowden and the material he leaked, including considering giving him asylum. The big surprise is surely that over 50% of the sample have no opinion.
Given that Snowden is a US citizen, it is perhaps not surprising that more people in the US have an opinion on his actions than in the UK. The UK’s intelligence services are also older and more complex than in the US, and surveillance is understood to be generally more accepted in the UK. The US tends to be more polarised when it comes to public surveillance. When a 2013 survey of US citizens asked their opinion on government surveillance, 48% of respondents were concerned that the government would go too far and 41% that it would not go far enough. Likewise, a 2014 YouGov/Economist poll of 1,000 US citizens asking their opinion of Snowden found that 45% of respondents disapproved of his actions and 43% approved.
The UK results of my survey shows the extent to which apathy or uncertainty has grown in the minds of the UK public in the two years since the stories were first published. A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times taken in the days after Snowden’s name was released two years ago showed that 56% of the British public thought Snowden was right to give the information he did to the press and 27% that he was in the wrong. A piece of research by Dr Jonathan Cable published in July 2015 (pdf) compared polls of UK opinion regarding Snowden’s actions and found that, in the months following the Snowden revelations, favourable opinion of his actions remained fairly static but unfavourable opinions grew. It is interesting to note that those answering they don’t know whether he did the right thing or not remained (during 2013) at about a third of the respondents, compared to approximately two-thirds of my sample.
Snowden, and his actions, have been divisive and opinion regarding the morality of what he did varies according to social, cultural and political context. However, the main finding of this survey is that most people do not have an opinion on whether he did the right or wrong thing. By default, therefore, can we assume that most people do not have an opinion on the work of the NSA and GCHQ? Should we be encouraging a more open, informed debate on the rights and wrongs of Internet surveillance or is this the way it actually should be, that intelligence agencies should be trusted by the population to do their work?