The Chilling Effect Of Mass Surveillance Quantified

from the be-good...-or-be-watched dept

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

George Orwell, 1984

There has been much talk about the chilling effect of mass surveillance. The problem isn’t that anyone is actively watching everyone. The problem is that algorithms and search tools are doing the watching, meaning everything eventually receives some level of scrutiny if it’s deemed suspicious by the filters.

It’s been mostly talk, though. Anecdotal evidence passed on by journalists, security researchers and others whose interests might clash with what the US government has deemed acceptable. Now, there’s data. A study by Jonathon W. Penney shows searches for certain subject matter have declined in response to the NSA leaks. Penney cites earlier studies of Google traffic that showed a statistically significant decline of 5% in searches involving terms people might believe would be flagged as suspicious by mass surveillance software. He also notes that the dip was short-lived, corresponding roughly to the initial Snowden leaks before resuming at their normal pace after a few months.

Penney instead focuses on Wikipedia, a site a large percentage of the population uses for research. It also offers far more comprehensive data to researchers than an examination of Google Trends provides.

There are also methodological reasons for this case study’s focus on Wikipedia. First, unlike Google Trends, Wikimedia Foundation provides a wealth of data on key elements of its site, including article traffic data, which can provide a more accurate picture as to any impact or chilling effects identified. Second, Wikipedia, a “unique, online, collaborative encyclopedia,” has over 500 million visitors per month, and its collaborative and peer-produced content is growing at a rate of 17,800 articles per day (as of May 2014, English Wikipedia content includes over 4.6 million articles). In other words, Wikipedia is both a massively popular medium, but one that is also growing in content and scope. As such, any observed chilling effect would implicate a large number of Internet users (accessing Wikipedia) doing something wholly legal—accessing information and knowledge in an encyclopedia—and, arguably, such chilled or reduced use would run counter to these Wikipedia use and content trends.

Using the DHS’s own keyword list for terrorism-related terms, Penney examined Wikipedia’s data. Using a 32-month period surrounding the first Snowden leak (June 2013), Penney compared the number of visits to “terrorist-related” Wikipedia pages and found a significant drop post-Snowden.

The difference in mean values is notable—a reduction of 526,614 in the average monthly views for the article after June 2013, which represents approximately a 19.5% drop in article view counts. This is more than mean differences found in the Google search terms study before and after June 2013.

Those are Penney’s non-empirical findings, something he notes could track with an overall decline in Wikipedia traffic. (Not that Penney actually examined all Wikipedia traffic during that same period and found a decline, but rather providing a non-chilling effect theory for the drop off.)

The empirical findings, however, back up the non-empirical.

The shifting trend of the data, which in this case is a sudden and immediate drop, is particularly consistent with a chilling effect arising from June 2013 revelations. If the outlier data relating to Hamas view counts is excluded, the decline in page views is less sudden (e.g. 20% immediate drop off if the Hamas data are excluded compared to the 30% drop off in the Hamas data remains in the study). However, regardless of whether the Hamas data is included, there is still a substantial and statistically significant decrease.

The numbers appear to back up the claims of many journalists and researchers in the wake of the Snowden leaks. Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept, adds the anecdotal evidence back into the mix.

The fear that causes self-censorship is well beyond the realm of theory. Ample evidence demonstrates that it’s real – and rational. A study from PEN America writers found that 1 in 6 writers had curbed their content out of fear of surveillance and showed that writers are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” Scholars in Europe have been accused of being terrorist supporters by virtue of possessing research materials on extremist groups, while British libraries refuse to house any material on the Taliban for fear of being prosecuted for material support for terrorism.

Some journalists and researchers can assert definitively there’s a chilling effect. Many of those associated with the Snowden leaks have experienced everything from constant security harassment (and detainment) at airports to the government actually stopping by the office and destroying computers.

For others, it’s a gloom that never encroaches past the horizon, but also never fully dissipates. The feeling that something may trigger a detainment at an airport or an unseen investigation is always there. Even in my work for Techdirt, I’ve second-guessed Google searches that have resulted in warnings about illegal activity (related to posts about various child porn defendants) or accusations I’m a robot (searches for specific document types containing certain wording). I don’t feel I’m actively on anyone’s radar, but it wouldn’t take much for someone to assemble my internet history and use it to build a case against me. Even if it fell apart immediately, I would still have to deal with an arrest, searches/seizures of my electronics, and the possibility of losing my other job.

And what I research isn’t that all uncommon, considering the subject matter we cover here. There are plenty of writers, researchers and journalists out there treading into even murkier waters — some of whom have been second-guessing their own efforts since the Snowden leaks, if not earlier.

It’s no longer a case of peering out the blinds and seeing a van sitting at the end of the street, one that’s never been there before. The surveillance is largely passive. The NSA gathers a ton of data and sifts through it, ensuring as many people as possible are caught in its nets, even if most of them are released after an algorithmic examination. The FBI and other DOJ agencies partake in this data haul and local law enforcement agencies are increasing their own use of passive, keyword-oriented internet surveillance.

The problem goes much deeper than the NSA and its bulk surveillance. We’ve seen the FBI build terrorism cases out of nothing and cops raid houses because someone purchased something from a gardening supply store. We’ve seen people’s lives destroyed by bogus espionage cases built on nothing any rational person would consider “evidence” — except that all rational thought is immediately thrown out the window the moment someone says “national security.” It’s no surprise that some of those in these fields have just said “fuck it” and wandered off into safer areas. Why roll the dice on your own lives/livelihoods? The odds of the government dragging you down may be low, but they’re far from nonexistent.

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Comments on “The Chilling Effect Of Mass Surveillance Quantified”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The "Chilling Effect..."

Is the intended effect they were looking for.

The people traveling down this route know exactly what they are doing, it is not a mystery and I cannot fathom why people think that ignorance is even a viable excuse for these politicians. These guys craft some exceptionally dodgy legislation because they have entire teams think-tanking and writing this bullshit out so that all the dominoes fall in the right places.

No matter how frustrated those politicians ACT on the news with these things, know that they are well pleased with their accomplishments.

Chilling Effects are just exactly what the Doctor Ordered!

If you see something, say something! Because as you know, everyone… EVERYONE is a suspect!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

There is a fly in their ointment, the people who drop out of anti government activism are those who look for peaceful solutions, and also have a moderating effect on activists. This leaves the field clear for extremist to organise to replace one tyranny with an even worse tyranny. Supporting evidence for this viewpoint, ISIS and other middle eastern problems.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

Why would you call this a fly in the ointment? Often times this is a more suitable outcome for them as well, the whole extremism and political world is incredibly small. Most people just want to get the fuck out of the way, but if there is one thing fantasy TV has about terrorism is that everyone seems to fucking know everyone.

Same for the US government… all the people for this shit have more connections with each other than they would have you believe, and pretty much in every case, the revolutionaries are often disenfranchised former participants of that very process.

There is a reason why this shit self perpetuates! America is truly an anomaly in World History!

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

The issue however is that there are plenty of other possible explanations.

First and foremost, what was and what was not happened before and after those dates. Not Snowden, but other issues, such as terrorist activities. Was one month more active than others?

It’s also very possible to draw the conclusion that is the Snowden leaks were the cause, then perhaps some of the drop is people who feel they might have been outed being more careful. With all of the pages, all of the names, all of the people involved, it’s quite likely that Snowden’s leaks may have run them to ground for a while.

A true chilling effect would have been perhaps 50% drop off. 5% seems more like certain people being more cautious because they don’t want to draw any more attention to themselves at that key moment.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

More proof you have lost your marbles.

The “Chilling Effect” has to do with people not doing anything just to avoid any attention at all, including perfectly legal things like posting their opinions online!

Has nothing to fucking do with government ops stopping functions to prevent discovery. Additionally, stopping is just as noticeable as starting. When under suspicion you don’t stop you just hold pattern unless you want to call undue attention to yourself!

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

Yes, but this “report” doesn’t point out any true chilling effect. 5% decrease could be attributed to something else being the topic of the week that people spent their time on. It really is such a small number. If the graphs were full size (IE, no bottom and top trimming) you wouldn’t hardly be able to see any change at all.

“When under suspicion you don’t stop you just hold pattern unless you want to call undue attention to yourself!”

So that is what you did. Perhaps others decides to go to ground.

The point is that the report doesn’t point out “The Chilling Effect Of Mass Surveillance Quantified” as much as it points out that informed criminals perhaps choose not to be so obvious.

It cuts both ways, and proves absolutely nothing, except that perhaps the Techdirt staff is a bit gullible.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

5% seems more like certain people being more cautious because they don’t want to draw any more attention to themselves at that key moment.

In a legal context, a chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction.

So, unless you’re saying that performing said searches on Wikipedia should be illegal, then that is the exact definition of a chilling effect.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The "Chilling Effect..."

No, I don’t say that they are illegal (or should be). I am saying that some people may not want to make such a search because it would attract attention to their activities. It would be like a policeman with a radar gun on the side of the road: The only ones who are “chilled” are those who feel they are breaking the law. Everyone else keeps going like there is nothing.

Moreover, the drop in searches could be related to many other things. The report author used a very short period of time and a very small drop to try to prove something that isn’t easily provable. Did Kim Kardashian release something that week? Did a major celeb die? Was there a major sporting event, election, earthquake, or a million other things that might have happened?

It’s a 5% drop, not suddenly the whole world avoiding a subject.

Kal Zekdor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The "Chilling Effect..."

A chilling effect doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If a single person is dissuaded from performing a legal action due to fear of legal reprisal, that is a quantifiable chilling effect, even if a minor one. Your policeman with a radar gun analogy doesn’t hold water, as travelling above the speed limit is against the law. If, say, there was an increased incidence of ticketing of red cars, and, as a result, fewer people purchased red cars for fear of being unjustly targeted, then that reduction in the purchase of red cars, a wholly legal act, is a chilling effect.

I’m not saying that there might not be other explanations for this particular drop in searches. There may be other reasons for it. (Though the fact that you’re initially prejudiced against the accuracy of the data, despite supporting anecdotal evidence, is telling.) However, it is irrelevant to the point at hand, which is that your own words described a scenario which is the exact definition of a chilling effect, yet you claim it is not a chilling effect.

Agent76 says:

Mass Spying Is Always Aimed at Crushing Dissent

January 9, 2014 500 Years of History Shows that Mass Spying Is Always Aimed at Crushing Dissent *It’s Never to Protect Us From Bad Guys*

No matter which government conducts mass surveillance, they also do it to crush dissent, and then give a false rationale for why they’re doing it.

yok says:

I’ve lost trust in much of the Internet. I rarely use Google, Wikipedia, or any online search-based resource anymore.

The Snowden revelations damaged my trust in the Internet. I’m scared to explore. I find the Internet is a much smaller place than it used to be even in the 90’s. At least then there was intellectual privacy.

Fuck the NSA and fuck Snowden. The past several years has been pure and utter hell on my mental health. I grew up on the Internet and now I’m afraid to use it.

I hope all the officials responsible for these programs and who support them in addition to Snowden rot in hell.

Anon says:

What Orwell Missed

What Orwell missed was the elephantine nature of current spying. Not just the size, but the archiving – an elephant never forgets. (How Republican!) So not only does the government have the ability to spy on you in real time, but they can also go back and see what you did for the last decade or more if you attract their attention.

Perhaps the better fictional narrative is Isaac Asimov’s “The Dead Past” where a scientist develops a machine that can view the past like a television. He was just building something that could solve a controversial history problem – “did Carthaginians really burn babies alive in the name of religion?” He only realizes later that “the past” includes “a second ago” and having dispersed the plans all over the world, nobody will ever again have any privacy – including anything they’ve done up to that point; and his wife sinks into an obsessive state using the device to watch their daughter over and over again, up to the point where she died in a hose fire ten years ago.

Anonymous Coward says:


I am a healthcare provider. I require patients to sign a document regarding my HIPAA, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (US) policies, which explain under what circumstances their private health issues will be made available to any other entity. (Such as billing insurance, if audited by my licensing board, etc.).
About 6 years ago I ammended the document patients sign to include a section on using email for communication between my office and the patient. It pointed out that email communications are not private and no expectation of privacy should be expected using email. If the patient still found that acceptable, they could sign that they would like to use email to communicate with my office.
Prior to Snowden’s initial revelations, over 90% of patients signed that sections. Rather casually.
In the 6 months after that, almost 100% did not sign the email section. Since then, it is unusual for patients to sign it, probably less than 10%.
Thank you Mr. Snowden.
Well, yes, email is time consuming and I prefer not to use it. But mostly for making people aware there is even an issue to be aware of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Other numbers,

would be the growth of TOR, Freenet and other black market speech venues, as well as the whole commercial VPN gateway services market, not to mention digital currencies markets.

I find it odd that people attribute so much to Snowden. Psychologically invasive marketing techniques are now so obvious that you would have to be in a coma not to know your being surveilled for commercial purposes.

I don’t care about the NSA. I want the CARRIERS who are doing this shit brought up on charges.

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