A recent study by the Pew Research Center called "Americans' Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden" asked Americans how they have changed their behavior after learning about the Snowden leaks. The results show that while the number of individuals taking serious steps are small, on a whole, a sizable chunk of Americans do not like being monitored and have attempted, on some level , to prevent that. Here are some of the stats given by the report:
- 17% of the adults who have heard about the government surveillance programs say they have changed their privacy settings on social media in an effort to hide their information from the government.
- 15% have avoided certain apps.
- 15% have used social media less often.
- 13% have uninstalled certain apps.
- 13% have unfriended or unfollowed people on social media.
- 8% have deleted social media accounts.
- 8% have made more phone calls instead of communicating online.
While many of the steps above really do not resolve any of the exploits available to the government/corporations to monitor your online life, what they do show is that the opinion towards mass surveillance is not uniform. People are now actively trying to circumvent monitoring, even if those attempts are inadequate.
What was even more interesting to me, however, were the following statistics:
- 14% have spoken more in person instead of communicating online or over the phone.
- 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications.
- 11% have not used certain terms in search engine queries they thought might trigger scrutiny.
For those who do not know, what you are seeing above is what journalists and lawyers call the "Chilling Effect." To quote the Wikipedia page, the chilling effect "is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction." If the plain stats themselves are not enough, here are some quotes taken from the study:
“There’s no point in inviting scrutiny if it’s not necessary.”
“I didn’t significantly change anything. It’s more like trying to avoid anything questionable, so as not to be scrutinized unnecessarily.”
“[I] don’t want them misunderstanding something and investigating me.”
Proponents of current policies often argue that the chilling effect is either negligible or not real, but that is ridiculous. The fact that people are scared to look up certain ideas or how to protect their privacy because of surveillance is clearly self censorship. People cannot learn about issues fully if they are scared to investigate the issue itself and individuals should not fear prosecution for defending their rights
It comes as no surprise that post-Snowden, people have become even more afraid of looking up certain phrases or topics because of the possibility of surveillance and prosecution. NSA mass surveillance aside, from secret no-fly lists, to Federal agents pretending to be utility repairmen, the government is less than scrupulous in its methods of monitoring and controlling citizens.
I walk away with a bittersweet impression from this study. On one hand, Americans are showing that they are not comfortable with their privacy being violated, but on the other hand, some Americans deal with this by suppressing their beliefs out of their fear of the government.