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

Americans are more sensitive when it comes to searches of their personal electronics than other personal effects

NEW YORK, Aug. 5, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- 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.   

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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.

(To see the full results including data tables, click here)

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.

To see other recent Harris Polls, please visit the Harris Poll News Room.

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This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between February 12 and 17, 2014 among 2,266 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

About Nielsen & The Harris Poll
On February 3, 2014, Nielsen acquired Harris Interactive and The Harris Poll.  Nielsen Holdings N.V. (NYSE: NLSN) is a global information and measurement company with leading market positions in marketing and consumer information, television and other media measurement, online intelligence and mobile measurement. Nielsen has a presence in approximately 100 countries, with headquarters in New York, USA and Diemen, the Netherlands. For more information, visit

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