Edward Snowden is responsible for a “chilling effect,” an obvious change in the way we use the internet, according to a new study. Snowden leaked documents which showed that the National Security Agency was monitoring internet traffic, and not just overseas. The Washington Post writes that the extent of the NSA’s monitoring was “far beyond what had been disclosed — and [it] was working directly with top Internet companies to spy on certain people.”
The Snowden revelations scared a lot of people all over the world; “people act differently when they know they’re being watched.” Glenn Greenwald, a Guardian journalist who reported on the Edward Snowden documents, puts the problem in simple terms.
“‘Essential to what it means to be a free and fulfilled human being is to have a place that we can go and be free of the judgmental eyes of other people.’”
The Edward Snowden study focused on “Wikipedia traffic in the months before and after the NSA’s spying became big news in 2013.” The author of the study is an Oxford PhD candidate, Jonathan Penney. He argues that Snowden’s revelations “happened so swiftly and were so high-profile that they triggered a measurable shift in the way people used the Internet.”
Penney says the problem is more than just people turning off the internet because of what Snowden leaked. This isn’t a return to good, old-fashioned values of talking face to face over coffee instead of instant messaging. People disengaging themselves from the biggest source of information the world has ever known has potentially terrifying repercussions.
“‘You want to have informed citizens. If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.’”
The Department of Homeland Security listed “48 terrorism terms that they should use when ‘monitoring social media sites.’ Penney collected traffic data on the English Wikipedia pages most closely related to those terms.” This means that would-be terrorists looking for “bomb” might be deterred, but so would a schoolkid in Idaho working on a project, or a guy in Glasgow looking for information on the Paris attacks.
The impact of the Edward Snowden revelations were echoed in a Pew survey of 2015. The Washington Post reports that the survey found “87 percent of American adults were aware of the Snowden news stories. Of those people, about a third said they had changed their Internet or phone habits as a result.” A third of 87 percent of the American population is around 96 million people. The enormity of the Edward Snowden effect is mind-boggling.
Penney explained that he “‘expected to find an immediate drop-off in June , and then people would slowly realize that nobody is going to jail for viewing Wikipedia articles, and the traffic would go back up. I was surprised to see what looks to be a longer-term impact from the revelations.’”
Could the drop in traffic be not because the “Snowden leaks made [people] paranoid, but because the news distracted them from their previous curiosity about terrorism.” Or is the public so bombarded with news about terrorism that it doesn’t want to look it up? A steady diet of “war on terror” news three times a day might be enough for anyone. Maybe apathy and not paranoia is to blame.
Was Edward Snowden aware of the trickle-down consequences of his leaks? The downturn in internet usage has specific consequences for Wikipedia. The organization relies on donations earned during its annual fundraising drive, and less users means less money.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales “accused the NSA of tracking Wikipedia users.”
“‘So imagine, now, a Wikipedia user in Egypt who wants to edit a page about government opposition or discuss it with fellow editors. If that user knows the N.S.A. is routinely combing through her contributions to Wikipedia, and possibly sharing information with her government, she will surely be less likely to add her knowledge or have that conversation, for fear of reprisal.’”
“In March 2015, the American Civil Liberties United filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the NSA’s surveillance practices, with Wikipedia’s parent organization as one of the eight plaintiffs.” The case was thrown out, because “there wasn’t enough evidence that anyone was harmed.”
The Snowden revelations hit Wikipedia hard; traffic has “plunged nearly 30 percent,” reports Newsweek. That might be an unsustainable loss for the organization.
Penney’s survey results will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Will Edward Snowden take the research into account if and when he decides to release more state secrets? That remains to be seen.
[Photo by Handout/Getty Images]