Poll: Antiterror tech plans are flawed

U.S. government isn't doing enough with technology to improve homeland security, a CNET Interactive poll finds.

Americans don't believe the government is doing enough with technology to improve homeland security, according to a national survey conducted jointly by CNET and Harris Interactive.

Drawn from a poll of 1,133 people in late August, the results portray a nation eager to embrace technology to reduce security threats but unsure how best to proceed. Only 15 percent of those polled believe they are safer today than they were a year ago, and just 20 percent predict that they will be safer in the future.

Despite widespread confidence in technology itself, only 45 percent agreed that the government's current technology initiatives are working, according to the survey. The results reflect concerns raised by taxpayer organizations and other government watchdog groups. Such groups have been critical of technology spending and related operations since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

"From the beginning, we were concerned that this reorganization had gone the way of the Department of Energy--bigger bureaucracy and few results to show for it," said Pete Sepp, vice president of the nonprofit National Taxpayer Union. "The picture isn't complete, but the brush strokes we've seen so far are pretty ugly."

The survey indicates that the issue could be a pivotal factor in the elections next month. About 92 percent of the poll's respondents said a presidential candidate's position on security would affect their vote, and 62 percent said they would support a tax increase to pay for new security measures.

The support for security is so strong that the survey's respondents were apparently willing to back measures that have been sharply criticized by civil libertarians as too intrusive. About 53 percent of respondents expressed at least some willingness to repeal certain privacy laws, while 70 percent favored the legalization of more aggressive interrogation methods.

More than 80 percent of respondents indicated a willingness to carry some type of national ID card, and about 70 percent said such a card would be a useful tool to improve security. The poll also revealed support for the greater use of cameras and advanced surveillance technologies in public places, including hand and eye scanners.

Some technology experts attributed the response at least partly to a limited knowledge of technology and what it can accomplish.

"People are putting too much faith in technology," said Bruce Schneier, founder of Counterpane Internet Security. "They don't understand how eye scanners work or how authentication fits into security. They don't understand what a national ID card means or haven't read any of the studies about the effectiveness of security cameras. They're giving opinions based on superstition, not real facts."

Nevertheless, the poll's results seem to reflect a general erosion of public confidence in the federal government, a trend that began decades ago. For homeland security in particular, nearly 53 percent of respondents said the government could do more with the technology it already has.

Zoe Baird, co-chair of the Markle Foundation's Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, said the lack of faith in the government's ability to use technology was understandable, until recently. But she said recent changes in Washington have made her more optimistic.

"Over the last year, the government, at very senior levels, has finally come to terms with how technology can make us safer," Baird said. "I hope that over the course of the next year, the public's faith in government to use technology to make us safer will increase."

Party affiliations of respondents to the CNET Interactive Poll spanned the political spectrum. About 32 percent said they were Democrats, and roughly 35 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Another 11 percent were registered as independents, and the rest gave no party affiliation.

Other findings in the poll:

• 80 percent expressed varying degrees of support for a closed-border policy.

• 69 percent believe that more security at home would improve the nation's diplomacy.

• 55 percent say press reports exaggerate the threat of terrorism to their security.

This survey was conducted online within the United States between Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 among a nationwide cross-section of 1,133 adults of voting age, all of whom have Internet access. The results carry a statistical sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.