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Students shrug over NSA spying

Civil liberties activists hold a rally protesting NSA

Civil liberties activists hold a rally protesting NSA surveillance as President Barack Obama announces reforms at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 17, 2014. Credit: Getty Images

Last year, as the school bathroom wars were heating up, I asked a group of college students how they’d feel if they had to share a toilet with people of a different gender. Nobody seemed to mind; indeed, some of them were doing so already.

Then I asked how they felt about the National Security Agency possibly monitoring their phone or computer records. A few students objected, but most of them shrugged. They assumed it was happening already.

Welcome to the complicated world of privacy and young Americans, who continue to criss-cross our traditional political lines. On the bathroom issue, they’re overwhelmingly liberal: for most young people, it’s NBD (No Big Deal). But when it comes to the domestic surveillance by the government, they’re similarly blasé. And that puts them in the same camp as hawkish conservatives, who want to beef up surveillance even at the cost of civil liberties.

A growing number of colleges have established unisex bathrooms to accommodate transgender students, who often feel uncomfortable in a gender-restricted facility. In North Carolina, which recently set off a national firestorm by requiring people to use bathrooms based on their gender at birth, at least four colleges feature unisex restrooms in some of their buildings.

And as best we can tell, most young people are OK with that. They’re also fine with letting transgender people use whatever bathroom they choose. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week, two-thirds of Americans ages 18 to 29 said transgender people should be allowed to use restrooms corresponding to their current gender identity; by contrast, just a quarter of respondents over 60 agreed with that.

Earlier this year, meanwhile, a Los Angeles high school established a gender-neutral restroom in response to a petition signed by 700 students. The decision made national news and raised hackles among far-right critics, who protested outside the school last week and hurled anti-gay slurs.

The students then staged a counter-rally, featuring rainbow flags and signs reading, "Keep Calm, It’s Just a Toilet." Like other supporters of transgender rights, the students mocked the much-heard claim that unisex restrooms would allow "peeping Toms" to spy on members of different genders.

Across the country, however, young people don’t seem too worried about the government spying on them. In a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of the 18-29 cohort had a "favorable" view of the National Security Agency. The older they were, the less support respondents expressed for the NSA; among Americans over 65, only 40 percent had a favorable view of it.

Maybe that’s because older Americans remember how security agencies illegally spied on members of the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s. Or perhaps it’s because older people simply follow the issue more closely than younger citizens do. In a different Pew poll, back in 2013, 33 percent of Americans over 50 said they were following news about the government tracking phone records "very closely"; in the 18-29 bracket, just 12 percent said they were doing so.

That mirrors overall trends of youth political engagement, which has plummeted over the past few decades. Back in the 1970s, young people followed the news at about the same rate as other Americans. But in 2012, only 13 percent of young Americans said they regularly read a print or digital newspaper.

Not surprisingly, they also know much less about national news than their elders. In 2011, when 43 percent of Americans could name John Boehner as the speaker of the House, only 21 percent of Americans under 30 could do so. Even among college students, only one-third recognized John Roberts as chief justice of the United States. But over 90 percent recognized Miley Cyrus! Our students might not know much about politics, but they’re experts on pop culture.

Maybe that’s another reason why the bathroom issue has energized young people, while the NSA issue hasn’t. Across the airwaves, celebrities have lined up to lambaste the North Carolina bathroom law. A few big-name musicians, including Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr, have even canceled concerts in the state to protest the measure.

Another factor might be the NSA’s announcement - in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks - that it would stop routinely collecting the domestic phone records of U.S. citizens. But the agency retains the power to authorize phone data collections for "ongoing investigations," whatever that means. Nobody knows what kind of leeway that gives the NSA to snoop on us.

We should know. Many of our young people, raised in the digital era, seem to think that anything on their computers or phones is fair game for spying eyes. I’m proud of them for letting people of different genders into their bathrooms. I just wish they’d be more vigilant about letting the government into the rest of their lives.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of "Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know," which will be published in August by Oxford University Press. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.