The annual survey, which will be released Wednesday, asked more than 7,000 citizens whether they believe the government takes appropriate steps to safeguard personal information. Answers were mixed, but the overall trend suggested a decline in public trust since the think tank first studied the issue in 2004.
The NSA has suffered a substantial flogging by lawmakers and privacy advocates amid questions in the past year over its domestic spying in search of terrorists. It also was revealed recently that the CIA has been utilizing a special subpoena power of the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act to comb bank and credit-card records.
Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, which were evaluated separately in the survey, have experienced their fair share of controversy over the mining of information from government and commercial databases and a program that screens travelers entering the United States.
After last year's massive breach of more than 27 million military personnel's data, furthermore, the Veterans Administration fell from a top-five ranking in 2006 to just outside the bottom five in the 2007 Ponemon study.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' office also was among the least trusted of the 74 federal entities included in the poll.
"There's a clear correlation between bad publicity and poor privacy trust performance," survey author Larry Ponemon said. Previous studies "lacked a big headline negative event," whereas this time, there were several.
"Initiating more transparent operations and communications with the public is often the first step toward repairing damaged trust, but for obvious reasons, those are not options that agencies like the CIA or NSA can take," Ponemon said. The confidential nature of the agencies' operations "will always carry a certain cloud of mistrust with some."
Lisa Graves, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies, said the study "rightly gives these agencies rock-bottom privacy trust scores." "Some politicians may believe they can make political gains by going along with the president's anti-terrorism policies that strip away Americans' privacy rights," she said. But the survey makes clear that Americans do not think the entities can be trusted to protect their rights, she said.
The U.S. Postal Service received Ponemon's top ranking for protecting privacy the third year in a row. Other notable high achievers were the FTC, its Bureau of Consumer Protection, the National Institutes of Health, and the Census Bureau.
The study's overall findings concluded that Americans remain concerned over a "loss of civil liberties and privacy rights," "surveillance into personal life," and "monitoring e-mail and Web activities."
While diminishing public trust for the NSA and VA was not surprising to privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg, the FTC "may not be out of the woods" given mounting public concerns about identity theft. "If the FTC doesn't get a better handle on that problem, the commission may find its own trust rating drop in the 2008 survey," he said.