There is all to play for in the battle for public opinion over the right of the police and security agencies to access mobile phone, email and social media records. A simmering dispute over the Data Communications Bill, or 'snooper's charter', has roared to life following the disclosures by the Guardian that British security agencies have been obtaining information from a United States surveillance programme called Prism.
On behalf of the Huffington Post, YouGov has conducted the first survey into British attitudes since these reports surfaced. First, we asked about the main provisions of Data Communications Bill, which has divided the coalition, with Conservative ministers in favour and Liberal democrats against.
It has been suggested that the law should be changed to give police and security services access to the records kept by mobile phone and internet service provider companies. These would include individuals' web browsing, email and social media activity, though not the content of emails or social messages. In principle do you think this proposal...
Goes too far: it undermines our right to privacy - 38%
Is a good idea, given the way technology is evolving - 43%
Does not go far enough: the police and security services should also access to the content of emails and social messages - 8%
Don't know - 11%
Thus 51% either back the main thrust of the bill, or would like to go even further, as opposed to the 38% who think the powers proposed by the Bill go too far. Women divide almost two-to-one (55-30%), while men divide almost exactly evenly (48-46%). This gender difference is very different from what YouGov invariably finds on military matters. Men have always been keener than women on British forces going to Iraq or Afghanistan, or supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces two years ago in Libya. It seems that many women fear for the consequences of going to war, but feel reassured by our security services having extra information with which to fight terrorism.
Overall, it's worth noting that backing is less than that on two previous occasions when government plans for combatting terrorism has collided with concerns for civil liberties. In 2005, 72% backed the right of the police, subject to court approval, to extend the time that terrorist suspects could be held, from 14 days to 90 days; just 22% opposed this.
Then, in 2011, by 73-15%, the public backed the use of control orders, limiting the freedom of movement and communication if people that ministers suspect of posing a terrorist threat, but where there is insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Compared with those findings, support for the Data Communications Bill is significantly down.
Next, we asked about the recent reports that the US has been providing Britain's security agencies with information from Prism:
In the past few days, news reports suggest that British security services have had access to records kept by US intelligence services about British citizens' online activity, even though the US agencies might have gained this information in ways that are currently illegal in Britain. If this information is correct, are you...
Pleased that the UK security services are getting information that might help them track down criminals and terrorists - 46%
Sorry that the UK agencies might be getting round British law to undermine our right to privacy - 39%
Don't know - 15%
Once again, the public is divided, with slightly more people pleased rather than sorry.
Finally, we posed one dilemma that some people think is hypothetical but others believe to be all too real - whether security agencies should operate completely within the law at all times, or whether advances in technology mean that they should able, as some might put it, to do their work without one arm tied behind their backs.
If you had to choose between these two options, which would you prefer?
Britain's police and security agencies should respect both our right to privacy and the right of parliament to decide these matters; they should always obey the law - 45%
Britain's police and security agencies must keep up with technology, if necessary going beyond the law in order to obtain information that help them fight serious crime and terrorism - 42%
Not sure - 13%
So there is no majority for insisting on the rule of law - but neither do most people back GCHQ, MI5 or MI6 taking the law into their own hands. It is a moot point whether we should be reassured or appalled by the fact that law-breaking is backed four out of 10 Britons. If the proportion is regarded as alarmingly high, this may reflect the fact that politicians and parliament these days are held in such low regard.
These are early days in an argument that may well rumble on for months, even years. Indeed, the trade-off between security-driven rules and individual liberty will, and should, be something that we never stop debating. What this poll suggests is that neither side has a clear lead. Views may change as the arguments unfold and new facts emerge.
One thing that is likely to sway public attitudes is evidence that electronic 'snooping' either has, or has not, managed to stop terrorism and/or serious crime. Past YouGov research for Liberty suggests that perceptions of effectiveness are crucial. We value our civil liberties and would not surrender them lightly. We want our ministers and spooks to be smart, not hot-headed. That said, millions of us are willing to give our security agencies extra powers if, and only if, this really does repel the dangers we face. The public is likely to turn against these powers if it becomes apparent that our civil liberties are being eroded without any gain to our safety