• 10.09.13

Could A New “Privacy Generation” Change Our Surveillance Politics?

The arc of history is long, but it bends towards youth.

Could A New “Privacy Generation” Change Our Surveillance Politics?
[Image via Shutterstock]

The United States needs to strike a balance between respecting individual freedoms and protecting national security, says everyone from the director of national intelligence to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s the standard reaction to the stream of revelations about the extensive security state, a stream that may not end any time soon. (“The majority of what is extremely newsworthy has yet to be published,” Glenn Greenwald recently told the New Yorker.)


How we, personally, think that balance should be struck may actually relate to how old we were on 9/11, according to political scientists Joshua J. Dyck and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz.

In the 12 years since the terrorist attack, many have noted that 9/11 was the biggest socializing factor in young people’s lives. Observers have noted that this generation expresses a high degree of patriotism and question whether this will spill over into policy attitudes. One possibility is that those in their formative years during 9/11 would respond with an embrace of security measures that, while aiming to curb terrorism, also infringe on privacy.

That’s one possibility. But Dyck and Pearson-Merkowitz found exactly the opposite.

In a recent poll conducted at the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, we asked a series of questions about people’s willingness to trade privacy for security or vice versa. Across a series of questions, we find that people under 40 are extremely concerned about privacy issues and willing to sacrifice their safety to keep their lives away from the eyes and ears of government monitors, but that those over 40 are far more likely to trade their privacy for security.

The fact that younger people are more apt to be anti-surveillance state may not contradict the conventional wisdom of the Internet as much as it (apparently) does that of political scientists. But whether or not its catalyst is 9/11, the generational divide does seem to suggest that the way our politicians balance privacy and security will shift as the under-40s take control. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward the youngs.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.