The case against mass surveillance

Recently, I came a cross a study by Johnathon Penney, by the name of Chilling Effects. Here is a copy of the paper, which I’ve hosted on my site in case the original is moved or goes down.

The study found that since the leaks by Edward Snowden of the National Surveillance Agency (NSA) in the US, and its mass surveillance program, traffic to Wikipedia had dropped by approximately 20% in regards to subjects related to terrorism and subjects related to terrorism. Penney compared the internet traffic 16 months before the leaks by Edward Snowden to the traffic  after and found that although the interest in terrorism was rising before from 2.2 million to 3.0 million right before the leak, after the leak, traffic declined back to 2.4 million. The other big finding was that the more sensitive a topic was, the more likely it was to cause concern and that traffic was more  likely to be impacted.

This is not the only study to reach similar conclusions. Another study found that in after the Snowden leaks, people were less likely to Google search terms likely monitored by the US government.

Apparently people stopped reading the subjects out of concern that their reading it would draw attention to themselves. In effect, this was a sort of “self-censorship” that prevented people from even learning about the subject of terrorism. This would seem to be out of fear of that they might earn the ire of the NSA or perhaps face other consequences.  Penney calls this a “Chilling Effect” in that it led to a statistically significant drop in traffic by the general public for fear of retaliation in some form.

I don’t think that this conclusion should be a surprise for anyone who advocates for civil liberties. As MIT economist Catherine Tucker argues, those who don’t want to believe simply will not see what they do not want to believe.

From the defenders of mass surveillance, we often hear the idea that if people have nothing to hide, they should not worry about their privacy or similar arguments. Such defenders argue that the idea of “self censorship” is entirely overblown. We now have multiple studies saying that there is a statistically significant effect on how mass surveillance attacks knowledge, free thought, and free expression for fear of the consequences. In many ways, we are living in a Panopticon or at least a digital version of it, where people are controlled for the fear of the possibility that they may be watched. Such individuals live in fear and are forced to act like they are always being watched even when in most cases, that is not true.

Another large problem is that in a democratic society, which we claim to be, how can people make an informed decision about a problem when they do not even take the time to learn about the subject, or are afraid to do so for fear of retribution? Advocates of mass surveillance have no real answers to such questions. The only I can think of is that there are those who would use such power to their own ends and in ways that would not be beneficial to society. A large informed and engaged democratic populace is the only defense that we have. It has been said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Such advocates of surveillance would take away society’s power.

In many ways, the advocates of mass surveillance disturb me because their arguments resemble those of authoritarians. If we are to criticize other societies for their actions, and I will be the first to admit that many societies do deserve criticism, it would be hypocritical of us living in the West not to examine ourselves, to see if our society lives up to the ideals that it claims to uphold.

There is a reason why books like George Orwell’s 1984 are taught in schools. I think that he was in many ways prophetic.

Works Cited

Marthews, Alex and Tucker, Catherine, Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior (April 29, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2412564 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2412564

Penney, Jon, Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use (2016). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2016. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2769645

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