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Our World

December 27, 2013

Americans uneasy about surveillance but often use snooping tools

WASHINGTON — Julie Beliveau's 16-year-old daughter, a new driver, was heading from her home in Ashburn, Va. toward a job interview the other night when she found herself in Leesburg, Va. — the wrong direction entirely. Upset and fearing that she'd blow the interview, she called her mother, who instantly launched her tracking program.

"I just opened my phone, and I could see where she was," Beliveau said. Mother guided daughter to the interview, where she got the job. Score one for surveillance.

Yet Beliveau says she would never use the program just casually to check her daughter's whereabouts. "That's going over the line," she said.

Amid this year's revelations about the federal government's vast apparatus for tracking the movements and communications of people worldwide, Americans are uneasy with the extent of surveillance yet often use snooping tools in their own lives, a Washington Post poll has found.

The sweet spot between liberty and security has been hard to pinpoint ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. Remarkable advances in information technology have enabled counterterrorism tactics far more sweeping and intrusive — and powerful — than the United States had ever deployed. At the same time, the relationship between consumers and businesses was elementally altered as mobile phones, GPS, Google and Facebook gave corporations a new capacity to track their customers' behavior.

This year, in the months since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents detailing U.S. surveillance programs, it has become clear that there are not yet widely accepted norms about who may watch whom and when and where tracking is justified. The Washington Post's poll found that Americans' attitudes about surveillance are anything but consistent, whether the sample is the entire nation or a single, conflicted person.

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