Study Examines Tradeoffs of Civil Liberties to Reduce Terrorism Risk

Contact: Doug Gavel
Phone: 617-495-1115
Date: March 17, 2003

CAMBRIDGE, MA - A new study, prepared by two Harvard University professors, indicates public support for racial profile screening of airline passengers to reduce the risks of terrorism if such screening reduces significant flight delays passengers would otherwise experience.

"Sacrificing Civil Liberties to Reduce Terrorism Risks" is co-authored by W. Kip Viscusi, Cogan Professor of Law and Economics, Harvard Law School; and Richard J. Zeckhauser, Ramsey Professor of Political Economy, Kennedy School of Government. The paper examines opinions toward the sacrificing of certain civil liberties to reduce the risks of catastrophic terrorist events. The study subjects were Harvard Law School students who were surveyed in the spring of 2002.

The findings show that more than 73 % of respondents favor racial profile screening if the alternative was to add 60 minutes waiting time to screen all passengers. A lower percentage, 55 % of those surveyed, would favor racial profile screening if the time savings were 30 minutes, and the number falls to 44.7 % if the time savings were only 10 minutes. Support for racial profiling is lower overall among nonwhite respondents but follows a similar pattern.

On the question of whether or not flying is more or less prone to terrorism today (the survey was conducted in the spring of 2002) compared to pre-9/11, respondents were split. Just over 42 % said there is a higher risk while just over 40 % said they believe the risk today is lower. About 17 % said the risk is the same.

On the question of surveillance of communications, just over 36 % of respondents said they would support policies making it easier for authorities to read mail, email or tap into telephones without their consent if the purpose was to prevent terrorism. The percentages were higher among those respondents who supported racial profile screening for airline passengers.

"This study shows that Americans are very conscious of the tradeoffs involved in risk reduction for terrorism," Zeckhauser says. "There is a form of cost-benefit analysis being conducted by people who on one hand value civil liberties, but, on the other, are willing to see some rights sacrificed to increase their personal security. What was surprising was the degree of sacrifice they would accept to avoid the inconvenience of waiting time."

The full report is available online.

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