Washington (CNN) – Does the U.S. government know more about the phone calls and emails its citizens make each day than Americans might have ever imagined?
The latest headlines focus on the existence of a National Security Agency program using data from some of the world's biggest online services companies - including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Facebook - to monitor the online activities of non-U.S. residents overseas. This followed reports earlier this week that the NSA had access to the telephone records of millions of Americans. The agency is defending itself, saying the programs are part of the strategy to protect the U.S. from terrorism.
With the ensuing media coverage, the age old debate of security versus privacy is back on the front-burner. And one of the most recent national polls on the topic comes from CNN/Time/ORC International, which questioned Americans at the end of April, about two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Although worries about terrorism edged up following the bombings, the survey indicated only four in ten Americans said they were willing to give up some of their civil liberties to fight terrorism, with 49% disagreeing.
While there was little partisan divide on this question, there was a generational gap. Only 34% of those under age 50 said they were willing to give up their privacy for security, but that number jumped to 50% among those age 50 and older.
"Older Americans are more worried about terrorism in general, so it's understandable that they would be more willing to take steps to prevent acts of terrorism," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
The survey also suggested that public attitudes toward terrorism and civil liberties have changed dramatically since 1995, when the deadly bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City first ushered in a new era of anti-terrorism measures that impacted the lives of ordinary Americans. Back in 1995, 57% of the public said that they were willing to give up some civil liberties if that were necessary to curb terrorism. Now, that figure is down to 40%, and it appears that the biggest change is in attitudes toward cell phones and email.
"After the September 11 terrorist attacks, 54% of Americans favored expanded government monitoring of cell phones and email. Now, the message is 'hands off,' " adds Holland. "Only 38% said they favor expanding government monitoring of those forms of communication."
Another finding from the survey: Six in ten said that they were more worried about the government restricting civil liberties than they were that the government would fail to enact new anti-terrorist policies.
American's attitudes on this subject have been far from stable.
"Opinion on the government monitoring of cell phones, for example, has risen and fallen since the 9/11 attacks, probably in reaction to world events. By 2005, that figure was down to 37%, roughly where it is today. But in 2006, support rose to 52%, nearly the same level as in 2001," adds Holland.
The poll was conducted for CNN and Time magazine by ORC International, with 606 adults nationwide questioned by telephone on Tuesday April 30. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points.