For the first time, a poll shows that a plurality of Americans feel as though the government's surveillance goes too far. Although there are some major caveats, that's a significant finding. Why, then, are so many people focused on the less-important poll question dealing with Edward Snowden?

The poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, indicates that 45 percent of Americans feel as though the newly detailed programs go too far. Or, to be specific, they were more likely to say that the government going too far in encroaching on civil liberties was a bigger concern for them than the government not going far enough. The results of the survey are at right. (In each graph in this article, the red section represents the anti-surveillance position; the blue, the pro-surveillance response.)

It's interesting to look at the responses by demographic as well.

A few interesting patterns.

  • Independents are more likely to be concerned about intrusiveness than their partisan friends.
  • Men, as our colleagues at the National Journal point out, are far more likely to be concerned about civil liberties than women.
  • Though the findings broadly comport with the stereotype: Young white males are the most likely to be concerned about encroachment.
  • In fact, the data indicates that there's a disconnection between older respondents and Republicans, which often correlate strongly. Those over the age of 65 are by far the least likely to be concerned about civil liberties, though the number for Republicans, as noted, is in line with Democrats.

And now the caveat. Quinnipiac asked three other questions.

Do you think the collection of phone metadata is too much intrusion into privacy? they asked, with a majority, 53 percent, saying yes. But respondents also were asked if it was necessary to keep them safe, and 54 percent said it was. And when the program was described, 51 percent said they supported it. So a plurality worries about the intrusiveness of surveillance in general, and a majority think the collection—and analysis!—of phone metadata is too intrusive. But they support it and think it's necessary. Armchair psychologists, please weigh in.

Phone metadata collection

Do you support?
Necessary?
Too intrusive?

As you may have heard, there was another question asked in the poll. Do you regard Edward Snowden, the national security consultant who released information to the media about the phone scanning program, as more of a traitor, or more of a whistle-blower? Fifty-five percent of respondents said "whistle-blower," to 34 percent who said "traitor." This data point is interesting, to be sure, but it's hard to see how it's the most important part of the poll.

And yet, it's the piece of data that most news organizations ran with—including Quinnipiac which used it to start its press release.

Even the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who introduced Snowden to the world and who has repeatedly railed against the focus on Snowden as opposed to Snowden's revelations, couldn't resist.

Greenwald explains the importance of the data point in an article at the Guardian: "Americans, to a remarkable extent, seem able and willing to disregard these demonization campaigns." Then, Greenwald goes on to the other poll numbers.

Photo: A German woman protests at the U.S. embassy in Berlin. (Reuters)