Thursday, December 29, 2016
The Watchers... Assaults on privacy in America
DO PEOPLE BEHAVE DIFFERENTLY when they think they are being watched? When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the mass surveillance of American citizens in June 2013, the question suddenly grew in importance. Can the behavior of an entire population, even in a modern democracy, be changed by awareness of surveillance? And what are the effects of other kinds of privacy invasions?
Jon Penney was nearing the end of a fellowship at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society in 2013, and he realized that Snowden’s disclosures presented an opportunity to study their effect on Americans’ online behavior. During research at Oxford the following year, Penney documented a sudden decline in Wikipedia searches for certain terrorism-related keywords: Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, dirty bomb, chemical weapon, and jihad, for example. More than a year later, when the study ended, such searches were still declining. “Given the lack of evidence of people being prosecuted or punished” for accessing such information, Penney wrote in the Berkeley Technology Law Review (which published his research last June), he judged it unlikely that “actual fear of prosecution can fully explain the chilling effects suggested by the findings of this study.” The better explanation, he wrote, is self-censorship.