After the nation learned that the National Security Agency has engaged in widespread surveillance of consumer communications over the last several years, some advertisers fear the public’s reaction could negatively impact the industry.

“One of our concerns is that people will try to pass new restrictions – out of fear of government surveillance – that will stop what marketers can do, without having any impact on what the government can do,” Linda Woolley, president and CEO of the Direct Marketing Association, told MediaPost. If citizens confuse government spying with the ad industry’s data collection, “things could go very badly for marketers,” she added.

Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research Group told MediaPost that at the very least, consumer awareness about online privacy has been heightened by the NSA surveillance revelations. “If few consumers were paying attention to debates regarding the use of personal data between corporate participants and a handful of regulators, it seems almost certain that many more will be doing so now,” he said.

Others are hoping the government’s activities will place the actions of the advertising industry in a better light, or simply remain a political issue for the current administration. “Politically, the current debate around the Prism program and other government practices certainly takes the focus off of more accepted commercial data practices, and it would seem antithetical to the administration’s current national security practices for them to push data collection restrictions onto leading internet companies,” Mike Zaneis, senior vice president and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, told AdAge.

The initial public response has included a push for legislation to protect their privacy rights. But depending on the level of citizen outrage, a movement to restrict data collection or a requirement that companies obtain explicit consent from consumers prior to gathering information or tracking their Internet activity could be possible.

Rachel Thomas, DMA vice president of government affairs, recently posted a blog in which she maintained that unless the industry corrects mischaracterizations about “what data-driven marketers do and how we do it, we will get caught up in the Washington backlash against governmental intrusion.” Specifically, Thomas noted that the NSA isn’t interested in marketing data; instead, the agency allegedly collected metadata about telephone calls made by consumers and the actual content of communications such as e-mail, videos, data stored in the cloud, and social networking details – data not relevant to marketers.

“Any calls for new restrictions on marketing in the wake of the NSA leaks is misplaced, misguided, and born out of a basic misunderstanding about how data-driven marketing works,” she concluded.

Why it matters: The impact of the public backlash remains to be seen. One possible indicator that the advertising industry is feeling some of the reaction: consumers are seeking greater privacy protections. Privacy company Abine reported a 54 percent increase in downloads of its anti-tracking software over the seven-day period following the NSA’s news, while Duck Duck Go, a search engine that does not keep user logs, said its users increased by 55 percent in the same time period.