Scan Faces, Not E-Mail

That's the message we got from readers in our online poll about freedom vs. security, taken after the Sept. 11 attacks

More extensive background checks when applying for a job or renting a home aren't so troubling, but more surveillance by law-enforcement agencies of e-mail and phone calls isn't such a good idea. Those are just some of the results of BusinessWeek Online's recent interactive poll, Over the course of three weeks, 1,344 of our readers responded to this poll -- which, having used a self-selected sample, isn't a scientific survey by any means.

Still, your responses are intriguing. While they failed to show strong support for a wholesale rollback of personal freedoms, the results indicate that a sizable portion of those who took the survey would be willing to agree to significant changes to fight terrorism. For example, 45.6% of respondents said they'd be "very willing," and 22.5% said they'd be "somewhat willing" to submit to more exhaustive vetting as part of a job-application process. An additional 7.6% said the practice "doesn't matter" to them. In sum, 75.7% of all respondents aren't concernced about more invasive background checks.

As for the controversial practice of installing facial-recognition scanners in public places and transportation hubs, some 43.1% said they'd be "very willing" to accept this step, and 17.4% said they were "somewhat willing." An additional 7.5% said it "doesn't matter." So nearly 73% of respondents would have no real problems with facial-recognition systems that could be used to spot terrorists, among other things.


  While most respondents probably don't want Larry Ellison running a national ID card system (the outspoken Oracle chief offered his company's software for free to power such an effort), 47.3% said they'd be "very willing" to submit to such a system, 16% said they'd be "somewhat willing," and 5.8% said it "doesn't matter" to them. In total, just over 69% of respondents said they could accept national IDs, a concept that has been rejected by such politically disparate Presidents as Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.

We recorded far less support for more scanning of e-mail and more listening-in on phone calls. Only 22% of respondents said they'd be "very willing" to have more surveillance on these communications, while 21% said they'd be "somewhat willing," and 6% said it "doesn't matter." In contrast, 33.4% said they'd be "very unwilling" to submit to these steps, and 16.2% said they'd be "somewhat unwilling."

So on the question of additional wiretapping and e-mail surveillance, respondents were split nearly 50-50. Likewise, on the question of installing government-mandated surveillance devices -- a.k.a. Carnivore boxes -- respondents were evenly split pro and con, with 10% saying they "don't know" how to answer.

The upshot? To help thwart terrorism, our survey takers seem willing to accede to some reductions in personal freedom or to some extensions of existing surveillance systems. After all, national ID cards merely take Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers one step further. And facial recognition automates the type of surveillance that now takes place with video cameras everywhere. But more access to private communications systems, where we share our thoughts and feelings, remains a tough sell.

How willing would you be to see:

1) More extensive background checks when applying for a job or buying/renting a home?

Option Total %  
Very Willing 612 45.6 %
Somewhat Willing 302 22.5 %
Doesn't Matter to Me 102 7.60 %
Somewhat Unwilling 114 8.49 %
Very Unwilling 206 15.35 %
Don't Know 6 0.45 %

2) Facial-recognition scans in public places and transit hubs?

Option Total %  
Very Willing 577 43.12 %
Somewhat Willing 233 17.41 %
Doesn't Matter to Me 101 7.55 %
Somewhat Unwilling 139 10.39 %
Very Unwilling 274 20.48 %
Don't Know 14 1.05 %

3) National identification cards?

Option Total %  
Very Willing 632 47.31 %
Somewhat Willing 214 16.02 %
Doesn't Matter to Me 78 5.84 %
Somewhat Unwilling 92 6.89 %
Very Unwilling 292 21.86 %
Don't Know 28 2.10 %

4) More surveillance by law-enforcement agencies of e-mail and phone calls?

Option Total %  
Very Willing 294 21.99 %
Somewhat Willing 282 21.09 %
Doesn't Matter to Me 81 6.06 %
Somewhat Unwilling 217 16.23 %
Very Unwilling 446 33.36 %
Don't Know 17 1.27 %

5) Are you now more willing to accept the installation and use of sophisticated, government-mandated surveillance devices to track e-mail at your ISP than you were before the Sept. 11 attacks?

Option Total %  
Yes 603 45.07 %
No 594 44.39 %
Don't Know 141 10.54 %

By Alex Salkever in New York

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