PEW Data on Public Perception of Intelligence Agencies Is Biased and False

Airship flying over NSA data center in Utah. This bunker holds trillions of terabytes of NSA compiled data. The airship flew in a protest organized by Greenpeace, EFF and Tenth Amendment Center on June 27, 2014


New York City, NY (TFC) – The PEW Research Center has just released a compilation of statistics that creates a general portrait of US citizens as mostly not concerned by US Intelligence Agencies spying daily on millions of people around the world in a post-Edward Snowden America.  Edward Snowden is the former NSA Contractor-turned-whistleblower that released thousands of pages of documents proving the NSA and US Government had been spying on the planet for years.  The findings of PEW’s report are grossly misrepresentative of reality.  I will explain the corrupt and hypocritical past of PEW itself and give a better illustration of how not only the American public feels about the NSA, but the rest of the world.

The PEW Research Center is a subsidiary of the PEW Charitable Trusts.  Seven individual trusts make up this governing body.  In 2004, PEW changed its tax status to allow each of these seven trusts to be counted as an independent charitable organization, even though they are technically one financial entity governed by the same board of directors.  The Wall Street Journal predicted in 2004 that “PEW’s shift promises to have a seismic impact on [its] foundation and political worlds.  Though much of the press coverage has treated this as an accounting measure designed to save millions in taxes, the implications go much further.  PEW’s new status frees it up to spend money directly, to raise even more money, and to devote up to 5% of its annual $200 million budget to lobbying.”

The PEW Charitable Trusts were established by the surviving sons and daughters of Joseph N. Pew, founder of the Sun Oil Company, known today as Sunoco.   The founding fortune of PEW’s trusts came from the often brutal tactics of the early American oil industry.  By the end of fiscal year 2008, the total assets of PEW Charitable Trusts had grown to over $5 billion.  When your independent public charity corporation is worth over $5 billion, it takes a lot of moxy to call yourself a “non-profit” organization.

According to their 2013 income tax filings, PEW listed nearly $197 million in deductible charitable expenses.  However, of that $197 million only about $49 million is listed as charitable grants.  What happened to the other $150 million?  Well, a good portion of it went to the high level executives of PEW.

In fact, of the 13 listed working directors and trustees, only one, President and CEO Rebecca W. Rimel, is listed as working more than 3 hours a week.  Rimel’s salary in 2014 was over $4.1 million from PEW and “other reportable compensation.”  The other 12 members, which include the 7 actual members of the Pew family, received salaries varying all the way from $20,000 to over $100,000 despite only having 3 hours of weekly work being reported.  The other 11 high level executives of PEW have a weekly workload from 25 to 50 hours with salaries ranging from $254,000 to $400,000.  This does not include the over $600,000 in “other reportable compensation” listed as income between the 11 of them.

As nauseating as those number are, they only account for less than $10 million.  Their 990 tax form goes on to say that over $70 million was spent on wages for the entirety of the organization.  $2 million was spent on lobbying.  $5 million was spent on travel expenses.  $4 million was spent on conferences and conventions.  Finally, a whopping $28 million falls into the ill-defined category of “other expenses.”  For a charitable organization, a huge amount of its money is not being spent on charity.

PEW also has a history of investing in companies its alleged “principles” are in direct contrast with.  For example, PEW has for years made sizable donations to environmentally conscious groups like Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, and the Environmental Defense Fund.  In spite of this, one of the seven PEW trusts, Pew Memorial Trusts, contains over $24 million worth of purchased stock in Exxon-Mobil, one of the premier faces of the fracking industry that is destroying eco-systems throughout the US.

Another member of the PEW trusts, J.N. Pew Jr. Trust, has over $9 million invested in 12 different oil ventures, including Chevron, Marathon Group, and Phillips Petroleum.  Unbelievably, the PEW Charitable Trusts formed a joint trust with 6 other “non-profit foundations” that included the Rockefeller Foundation, bringing its total assets to over $21 billion, in order to form the Energy Foundation.  The Energy Foundation is the main financial supporter of the most prominent anti-Exxon Mobil activist group, the Texas Fund for Energy and Environmental Education.

Knowing the history of the PEW Research Center, you are probably raising an inquisitive eyebrow to the legitimacy of its recent findings about US perception of intelligence agencies.  You would be right in doing so.  Let’s examine the methodology of how PEW compiled these statistics.

Excerpt from a document that shows the renewal strategies for the NSA and its PRISM encryption program.


In its report, PEW mentions that it sampled 475 adults from the GfK Knowledge Panel.  The participants were given 4 surveys over the course of 1 year.  The responses are weighted to give the scaled representation of the entire US population, or so the report says.

However, the survey was only offered in English.  So already, over 20% of the population has failed to be represented.  According to the Census Bureau, in 2011, 20.8% of Americans do not speak English.  This may explain why their report says 54% of Americans believe it is ok to spy on citizens of other countries and 82% believe it is ok to spy on “suspected terrorists.”  To many white, english-speaking Americans, the word “terrorist” is synonymous with the word “Arab”.  So, it is reasonable to suspect that important demographics of the minority groups of America have not been fairly represented in this study.

On top of this, let’s look at exactly what “Gfk Knowledge Panel” is.

GfK is a massive, global market analysis firm.  In 2008, GfK merged with Taylor Nelson Sofres, another market analysis firm, to become the world’s second largest market research firm.  With over 13,000 employees and operations in 111 countries, GfK is truly an industry behemoth.

GfK’s Knowledge Panel receives the bulk of its survey data by using mail-order or online questionnaires. It uses a points-based incentive program to entice people into filling out its surveys.  Generally, 1000 points will equal $1.  Save up your points and you can cash them in for a $25 check or attempt to win other “prizes.”  There is also a mobile app that can be downloaded to take part in this same system of points.  Based on this information, it is not hard to expect that many of those who provide answers to surveys do not take it very seriously.

Thanks to the diligence of one particular user of the app I can tell you there is an alarming contradiction within GfK’s policy.  This user was encouraged to download the app from a Gfk survey he was taking.  GfK assured him before he downloaded the app that it would only have access to the security permissions of his phone’s network access and sound control.  However, upon downloading the app, named Survey On Demand (SODA) Mobile, the user found out that SODA Mobile wanted access to both his approximate and precise GPS locations, full network access, phone call data, hard drive data, system tools, bluetooth, camera (to take pictures and video), microphone (to record), and battery to prevent his phone from entering sleep mode.

In addition to this user’s testimony, a press release pertaining to SODA Mobile Version 3.0 released in January of last year tells us that, “Additional enhancements include an expanded push notification system to help field researchers stay in constant contact with their home base, and real-time views of staff location based on continuous GPS tracking.”  This begs the question:  If your software can track the locations of its staff, can it not just as easily track the locations of its users?  There is no mention of an option to not allow gps tracking or specifications as to who is being tracked.

In fact, the user whose testimony I recounted specifically mentioned the lack of any privacy policy attachment when he downloaded this app.  Moreover, he personally emailed GfK telling them of his concerns and asking for a copy of a privacy policy.  He surmised GfK’s response by saying, “Their response, in layman’s terms [was]:  If you don’t like it, don’t use it.”

What a brilliant strategy.

At this point, the findings of PEW Research Center’s report are far more than questionable.  They are downright comical in their biased political and business motivations.  PEW has been proven to be a well-oiled machine of financial corruption.  It allocates a budget to fund activist groups opposed to the companies that it has massive investments in.  It hires a company that uses the same spyware technology as the NSA to collect public opinion data on perception of the NSA and other US intelligence agencies.  This is not the kind of source I would depend on for consistently accurate statistics.

That is very alarming considering the fact that during my research for this article, I found numerous major media outlets have used a variety of PEW Research Center’s statistics in regards to public perception of US intelligence agencies.  Outlets like the Washington Post, USA Today, ABC, NBC, and The Guardian mention PEW statistics many times.  It is unacceptable for an organization like PEW to be able to taint the reality of public perception through so many major media outlets with misleading data.

In a memo sent out to “Interested Parties” on November 17, 2014 by Spitfire Industries, a campaign planning firm that works with numerous non-profits, statistics are shown that portray an American public much more concerned with NSA spying.  The memo lists 6 key findings:

1. Most Americans oppose the NSA’s collection of telephone and Internet data.

2. Americans are more worried about civil liberties abuses than national security.

3. Americans want control over their personal data and take steps to avoid being tracked.

4. Americans would like to see reform on issues such as the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). They are largely supportive of the June Supreme Court ruling ordering police to obtain a warrant before searching a suspect’s cellphone.

5. Support for restrictions on government surveillance is bipartisan. Youth and Libertarians are deeply concerned and only moderate/conservative Democrats continue to strongly support NSA programs.

6. Americans do not approve of the U.S. spying on allied leaders or foreign citizens.

The data cited in this memo is in direct contradiction with PEW’s recent findings.  Miraculously, PEW is cited in the memo several times listing drastically higher percentages of Americans being upset with NSA surveillance than their published report states.  The phrasing of questioning in these polls is critical.  Vauguely posed questions open themselves up to more positive or negative responses based on how they’re worded.

For example, in the report published this year by PEW, they asked the question, “Do you support the monitoring of communications between suspected terrorists?”  82% of people said yes.  However, this question does not establish how a person was labelled a “suspected terrorist”.  It does not address the issue of whether or not the person being polled thinks the criteria the NSA uses to determine a “suspected terrorist” may be flawed.  It does not address whether the person being polled thinks a person that has been wrongfully labelled a “suspected terrorist” should have their communications monitored.

PEW contradicts its own findings in a poll done in June of last year, only a few months before the recent poll was taken.  In this poll, PEW found that 74% of Americans “shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism.”  The wording of the question makes all the difference.

PEW tells us in its newest report that Americans have “muted” concerns about the government monitoring their electronic communications like phone calls, emails, and social media accounts.  It tells us 38% of adults are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about their email being monitored.  37% are concerned about their cell phones being monitored and only 31% are concerned about their social media being monitored.

PEW is obviously keeping certain data a secret because, in an apparently separate poll done at the exact same time as the one it has just released, they found that 80% of adults say Americans should be concerned about the government monitoring their phone calls and internet communications.  This poll also found that 91% of adults believe they have lost control over how companies collect or use their personal information.  The same poll found that 59% of adults believe they should be able to use the internet anonymously.  It also found that 86% of internet users have tried to be anonymous online and have taken at least one step to avoid being tracked.  These numbers are complete polar opposites to the data PEW released to the public about Americans’ “muted” concerns about having their data monitored.

Another poll done by ESET/Harris Interactive said that 4 out of 5 people have changed their privacy settings on social media in response to government spying.  47% have changed their online behavior to avoid being monitored.

A study conducted at the University of Colorado found that many consumers would rather pay a small fee if it guaranteed privacy.

A separate poll done by Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 71% of Americans do not want the government eavesdropping on their phone calls without court warrants and 62% oppose the collection of the contents of American’s emails without warrants.

As you can see, a more specifically worded question can give a better example of how the public is feeling about being spied on.  It should be clear now that PEW is purposefully misleading you with its statistics.  It appears to take several polls with differently worded versions of similar questions to tailor a table of statistics that will provide a more favorable picture of the government to the public.  Just like how it is optional for police departments to report officer involved murders to the FBI, PEW does not give a full statistical report to the public.  The government is spying on you.  The government is telling you that you do not mind being spied on even though you are repeatedly telling the government you do, and in large numbers.

Close up view of the “clipper chip”. This microchip is the gateway to all your personal information.


I would like to take a second to address exactly what “spying on you” means.  The NSA tried to develop the “back door encryption” programs it is using today in the 1990s.  Back then, it was called the “Clipper Chip”.  The program was shut down until the events of 9/11 gave the government the perfect platform on which to pitch the super-surveillance program.  It spent billions over the course of more than a decade to build this sophisticated program.  What it does is create a way for the NSA to access the data streams of the entire globe and capture lines of data that correspond to programmed search criteria.

For instance, if there is an outgoing Facebook message from a man in New York saying, “I am a terrorist.  I am going to blow up Capital Hill,” being sent to a man in Iraq, the NSA will follow the data stream based on the words “terrorist” and the context of “blow up Capital Hill”.  It will hijack this stream of data to find out the name, address, contact information, work history, medical history, library records, internet browsing history, cable viewing habits, and current GPS location of both of these men.  This is made possible by cooperation from major corporations like Microsoft, Verizon, and Comcast.

This is very serious.  The NSA, CIA, and the rest of the alphabet stew of intelligence organizations are primarily not collecting data on terrorists.  They’re collecting data on consumers.  We are being tracked, labelled, and assigned threat levels based on our internet habits.  We are being used as a giant corporate experiment in market analysis.  We are having our personal information sold to the highest bidder.

Mikko Hypponen gives an illuminating TED talk about exactly how the NSA hacked into the lives of millions of people across the planet.  You may view it here.  He points out that even though the encryption back-door only applies to data streams coming from or going into the US, companies like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Ebay, Amazon and many more create a monopoly of data that is subject to NSA interception.

It was just revealed last month that Samsung’s new line of Smart TVs give intelligence agencies the ability to activate the camera in the TV remotely, turning your bedroom into a closed-circuit surveillance hub.  This is not the first instance of smart TVs being used as remote-controlled spy toys.  All it takes for this to be allowed to happen is clicking “I agree” in a small dialog box with a link to pages and pages of privacy-violating-policy that we “don’t have time to read”.  Perhaps its time we took the time to read the documents we sign that take away our rights as human beings to live without constant surveillance.  These “privacy policies” that corporations purposefully make out to seem like “boring formalities” are carefully crafted legal documents that absolve the corporations from any accountability and give intelligence agencies expressed written permission to spy on you without the possibility of legal discourse.

We have to decide how to respond to this level of government surveillance as a species, as well as a nation.  A balance has to be struck between technological achievement and human rights to privacy.  Will privacy just become something humanity collectively decides isn’t necessary to further evolution?  Or will the backlash from the Snowden Revelation drive a dividing line between technology and consumers well into the future?  Time will tell, but the NSA controversy will forever be remembered as the period in history when humanity learned the invasive dangers of technological advancement.  How we respond has yet to be fully witnessed.