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Snowden's Unexpected Canadian Support

A new poll suggests nearly seven in ten Canadians support Edward Snowden, the man at the eye of a gathering storm over global electronic surveillance. But that support varies between Canadians of different political stripes.

The Angus Reid Global Survey released Wednesday exclusively to The Huffington Post says 52 per cent of Canadians who voted Conservative in the last election said they believe Snowden is a hero for revealing classified U.S. documents about its spying activities.

But that number rose to 67 per cent for Liberals and 78 per cent for New Democrat voters.

“There’s no question that he has become the catalyst and the concrete manifestation of an issue that otherwise seems to be very abstract and vague,” said Angus Reid, chairman of Angus Reid Public Opinion.

It came to light on Tuesday that documents leaked by the former NSA contractor implicate Canada’s diplomatic offices abroad as housing eavesdropping operations for U.S. surveillance programs. Information indicating Canada in spying on the Brazilian government was also revealed by Snowden’s leaks.

The poll found Conservative voters were less wary of electronic spying activities than those who supported the opposition parties. While 75 per cent of NDP voters and 65 per cent of Liberals said e-surveillance is unacceptable, just 42 per cent of Conservative supporters agreed with that statement.

Respondents who supported the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011 tended to place a higher value on national security, with 65 per cent saying security justifies some infringement of privacy – nearly double the number of New Democrats.

Meanwhile, 84 per cent of NDP supporters expressed distrust of the government and its intended use of e-surveillance data.

More than 4,500 Canadians, Britons and Americans took part in the online survey about their attitudes towards web surveillance.

The poll found similar divisions along political allegiances in the United Kingdom and United States – though attitudes in all three countries seemed to reflect who was in power rather than ideology.

Sixty per cent of Britons commended whistleblower Edward Snowden, but 54 per cent of British Conservative voters considered Snowden a traitor rather than a hero. Among supporters of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, only 37 per cent said e-surveillance was unacceptable compared to a majority of Liberal Democrats and Labour supporters.

U.S. public opinion was divided as to whether Snowden is a hero (51 per cent) or traitor (49 per cent). But Republicans were more skeptical of e-surveillance than Democrats. Nine out of ten Americans surveyed who voted for the GOP in 2012 said they don’t trust the government with their information.

“What’s really interesting on this issue of trust is how it breaks by political support,” Reid said.

“I’ve rarely in my career seen American Republicans, British Labour supporters and Canadian Liberal and NDP supporters more or less taking the same position on an issue.”

Nearly 80 per cent of respondents in the three countries said the issue of electronic surveillance is important.

“It’s an interesting issue because it’s come from nowhere. Now it occupies a top-five spot as a significant issue in each of the three countries,” Reid said.

Canadians and Americans were more likely to find e-surveillance unacceptable than Britons. In the U.K., 52 per cent said monitoring internet communications of the general public should not be tolerated, fewer than the 60 per cent reported in the U.S. and Canada.

“In the U.K., levels of acceptability are a little higher and I think that’s because of their longer history with CCTV, the IRA and other security issues they’ve had to face over the decades,” Reid said.

Very few of those polled in any country said they felt that information gathered should be used for “any purpose the government chooses”. Only five per cent of respondents in the U.S. and Canada and seven per cent of those in the U.K. trusted their governments implicitly with their data.

But nearly half of the respondents in each country believe that in reality, governments will use their information however they want.

“That speaks to a lof of cynicism out there,” Reid said.

“Current surveillance agencies are really having to rethink how they respond to this sudden public spotlight they’ve been put under.”

Reid believes that shows the Snowden saga and policy implications have really hit a nerve with people that could extend into forthcoming elections.

“This is a story that’s going to stretch out for a number of years as governments and these agencies try to figure out how to get on the right side of public opinion, try to figure out what to do politically about it.”

The survey was conducted on Oct. 23 with a total sample size of 4,536, including 1,519 Canadians, 1,010 Americans and 2,007 Britons. Online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they don’t randomly poll the population as telephone surveys do, but Angus Reid said samples of this size would carry margins of error of plus or minus three per cent.

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