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Chomsky Says Young People Don't Care About Surveillance — Is He Right?

Growing up post-9/11 with the Patriot Act, Dubya and imminent apocalypse, we are a generation somewhat jaded.

Photo Credit: Gabriel


When the leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed warrantless, secret government surveillance of U.S. citizens' phone and Internet records— including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats—Noam Chomsky surmised that younger people were less "offended" than older people by the privacy intrusion.  In a   Guardian article, he called this attitude a generational issue that "someone ought to look into." 

Younger people, he warned, are "much less shocked" at being spied on by the U.S. government than the older generation, "and did not view it as such a problem."

He said: “It may have to do with the exhibitionist character of the Internet culture, with Facebook and so on. ... On the Internet, you think everything is going to be public."

Well, there is absolutely a generation gap when it comes to issues of  freedom of information, the NSA leaks, and scandal in general—especially online—but it's not necessarily what you might expect. The lack of an "OMG" attitude over the U.S. government's mass-scale privacy intrusions stem from much more than a general air of nonchalance about technology. 

It's true that as a generation younger people are inherently more comfortable and dependent on technology—we type our credit card numbers into websites without much inquiry, and we share some of our deepest secrets and private conversations wirelessly. The general predilection is that these are necessary risks of the technology age. We’ve grown comfortable with the risks, almost to the point that they don’t feel risky anymore.

However, ease and exhibitionism online in general does not indicate blasé over perhaps the most astounding, far-reaching government intrusion on the privacy of individual citizens ever to occur in U.S. history. 

I'm not sure where Chomsky gleaned his impressions but, according U.S. polls, 18-35-year-olds are oftentimes more supportive overall of Snowden's leaks than older generations. Perhaps Chomsky failed to recognize that it's one thing not to be shocked, and another entirely not to be "bothered." 

In some ways the younger generation is jaded because their foray into adulthood has been tainted by scandal, lies, and disappointment at the hands of the system at large. When a millennial says they aren't surprised by this latest wrongdoing, believe them.

That doesn't mean they're not distressed. 

As a  CNN/ORC International survey released June 17 shows, president Obama's approval ratings fell by eight points following the NSA leaks, including a 17-point decline in support from voters under 30. In a Pew Research Center report, forty-five percent of Americans ages 18-29 said personal privacy trumps intrusion, even if that limits the government's ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. While 45 percent isn't quite a majority, it's a far greater percentage than any other age group.

Additionally USA Today poll shows members of the younger generation are more likely to disapprove of the government's collection of data than the older generation. Sixty percent of young Americans  support Snowden’s leaks, while just 36 percent of people age 65 and older are in support. 

Problems of a Millennium

Millennials, myself included, came into maturation post-9/11 alongside the Patriot Act, and with George W. Bush blundering speech after speech, telling lie after lie, as the face of U.S. politics. Our adult world has forever been on the brink of disaster thanks to climate change, perpetual "terror" threats, economic turmoil, elusive weapons of mass destruction, peak oil and other frights we inherited from generations before us. As captured in an animated "End of the World"  flash video that went viral in 2005, ours is the age of unlimited information and imminent apocalypse. It is in vogue, and even natural, to respond with an “I’m not surprised” attitude.