Attitudes to National Security: Balancing Safety and Privacy

Attitudes to National Security: Balancing Safety and Privacy
Monday 10 October 2016

ANUPOLL - Report No. 22 - October 2016
Attitudes to National Security: Balancing Security and Privacy
Dr Jill Sheppard
ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods
Professor Amin Saikal & Ms Katja Theodorakis
ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies
College of Arts and Social Sciences

Executive Summary - Katja Theodorakis

The most recent ANUpoll explores Australians’ willingness to trade off their personal rights and freedoms for national security. Government responses to the threat of terrorism often incur a cost to citizens, by way of reductions in privacy, freedom of movement, and other individual rights and civil liberties. Such a ‘trade-off’ approach, where the respect for fundamental liberal rights and values is reconciled with the need for communal security, according to the threat level, is meant to strike an appropriate balance between these two cornerstones of liberalism. Sacrificing some freedoms to protect the Australian community is therefore presented by governments as a necessary cost, but one that is proportionate to the need for safety.                                    

Yet this trade-off between increased security and the reduction in some civil liberties also presents a dilemma to democratic societies: namely, the extent to which the risk of terrorist attacks can actually be contained without compromising the defining principles of Australia’s liberal order. While in theory the idea of finding an appropriate balance seems straightforward, in practice it can be difficult to determine how much weight should be attached to the respective values of security versus privacy. When examining attitudes towards safety and privacy, it is consequently important to understand national security in terms of not only preventing terrorist violence, but also considering the political consequences any such measures have for our democratic societies. This is why this survey took particular interest in how the public views this increased need for surveillance with regard to the Muslim population, who are commonly perceived as being at a higher risk of radicalization and of being susceptible to violent extremist ideologies.
The survey of 1200 Australians finds widespread support for current counter-terrorism measures, such as retention of telecommunications metadata, strict border control policies, revocation of citizenship of ‘foreign fighters’ with more than one nationality, and bans on travel to sites of certain international conflicts. Even when posed as a trade-off between an individual’s rights and the protection of national security, the Australians surveyed express support for freedom-limiting policies in the fight against terrorism.

The findings also illustrate substantial public awareness of Muslims identified as being at a higher risk of radicalization and affiliation with terrorist groups than the rest of the population. More importantly, this ANUpoll supports the notion that many Australians conflate terrorism and Islamic extremism, with 22 per cent of Australians ‘not much’ or ‘not at all’ bothered by the possibility of Muslims being singled out for additional surveillance and monitoring. This indicates a disconnect from the Australian Government’s emphasis on cooperation with the Muslim community over enhanced law enforcement. This is significant insofar as it highlights an ongoing public perception of Muslims in Western societies as a potential danger to national security. This can result in stigmatisation, social divisions, and public backlash against the government counter-terrorism measures from those who feel unfairly targeted.

Key findings were:

* Australians are divided almost evenly in their concerns about themselves or family members being the victims of a future terrorist attack in Australia. A majority (51 per cent) report that they are either ‘not at all’ or ‘not very’ concerned, however 38 per cent do express concern. Among the respondents, 14 per cent are ‘very concerned’ that they or a family member will be a victim of terrorism within Australia.
* However more than half believes the government could do more to prevent attacks in Australia.
* When framed as a trade-off between civil liberties and national security, 46 per cent of Australians believe counter-terrorism measures have not gone far enough to protect the country.
* Almost 70 per cent approve of the collection and retention of telecommunications data for counter-terrorism purposes.
* Eight in ten Australians agree that current border control policies are necessary to protect the country from Islamist extremism and terrorism.
* A large majority of Australians (71 per cent) are concerned about the possible rise of Islamist extremism in Australia.
* That concern seems to be associated with education: the higher their educational qualifications, the less likely Australians are to express this concern.
* Just over one third (37 per cent) of Australians believe current measures single out Muslim Australians, and are bothered by this. Twenty-two per cent are either ‘not at all’ or ‘not much’ bothered, while 41 per cent believe Muslims are not targeted for additional surveillance
* Nonetheless, 70 per cent believe that Muslim Australians should not be subject to additional scrutiny (as part of counter-terrorism measures) solely because of their religion.
* There is widespread support (69 per cent) for Australian Government measures to prevent prospective ‘foreign fighters’ leaving Australia to fight in overseas conflicts.
* A vast majority (85 per cent) support the policy of revoking the Australian citizenship of dual national foreign fighters.
* A smaller majority (62 per cent) believe the power to revoke citizenship of such foreign fighters should rest with the High Court of Australia or similar judicial institution; 19 per cent believe the Minister for Immigration should hold that power.

About the poll

ANUpoll is conducted for The Australian National University (ANU) by the Social
Research Centre, an ANU Enterprise business. The poll is a national random
sample of the adult population, and is conducted by telephone. In this poll, 1,200
people were interviewed between 27 June and 10 July 2016 with a response
rate of 18.6 per cent. The results have been weighted to represent the national
population. The poll’s margin of error is ± 2.5 per cent.
Authors: Sheppard, J., A. Saikal & K. Theodorakis, ANU Poll 22,
Attitudes to national security: balancing safety and privacy, 2016, [Computer file].
Canberra: Australian Data Archive, The Australian National University, 2016.


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