Tech & Rights

#MeAndMyRights: Just Chilling? How Mass Surveillance Is Killing Democratic Accountability

Since Snowden's revelations, journalists and writers have been self-censoring on a wide range of issues - and this is just one of the 'chilling effects' of mass surveillance.

by Israel Butler

Mass surveillance is making it much more difficult for new ideas and information to be developed and shared. Unfortunately, it is impossible to prove a negative – we cannot produce data on the number of news stories or innovative concepts that have failed to persuade the public of a new idea because of mass surveillance. But there is plenty of evidence that opinion shapers like journalists and activists are slowing down and sometimes stopping their work because mass surveillance removes the privacy that they rely on to do their job of informing the public and stimulating debate and change. This tendency for journalists and activists to self-censor in the face of surveillance is referred to as the ‘chilling effect’, because the invasion of privacy is said to ‘chill’ (in the sense of slowing down or stopping) certain activities.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

Surveys of non-fiction writers and journalists have asked these groups about how they have changed their behaviour since the Snowden revelations explaining the extent of mass surveillance. A survey of around 500 journalists and non-fiction writers in ‘free’ countries revealed that, because of mass surveillance: 34% have avoided or seriously considered avoiding writing or speaking on particular topics; 31% have avoided or seriously considered avoiding certain topics in phone and email conversations; 42% have cut back or avoided or considered cutting back and avoiding social media activities. A survey by the same organisation focussing on the USA found that because of mass surveillance journalists and writers were self-censoring on a wide range of issues – not only questions relating to national security, like military affairs. Topics that journalists reported avoiding included: Middle East affairs, mass incarceration, drug policy, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, historical issues like US preparedness for a nuclear conflict during the Cold War and criticism of the government.

Another study based on interviews with journalists, lawyers and (former) government officials working in the intelligence community, national security and law enforcement in the USA shows that revelations about mass surveillance have made sources more reluctant to come forward to journalists. This makes it more difficult for the media to gather information and publish articles. Interviewees explain that whistleblowers are now far more reluctant to contact journalists about illegal or unethical behaviour. This is because whistleblowers fear that it is much harder for them to remain anonymous, since mass surveillance allows the authorities to search metadata to find out who has been in contact with journalists. However, it is not merely whistleblowers working in the area of national security and law enforcement who have become reluctant to expose illegal or unethical behaviour. Even organisations working on completely unrelated issues have been negatively affected. For example, an organisation that promotes the privacy of patients’ medical records, which relies on anonymous informants to report when corporations are breaking the law and illegally sharing patient records, reported a significant fall in the number of whistleblowers coming forward.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

A study of around 500 investigative journalists in the USA reported that, because of mass surveillance: almost 40% have changed the way that they communicate with sources; almost 50% have changed the way that they store and share potentially sensitive documents; almost 30% have changed the way that they communicate with other reporters, editors or producers; and 13% had decided not to contact a particular source.

Mass surveillance is also interfering with the work of associations (particularly interest groups), which are important for democracy because they allow individuals to participate in politics by organising themselves to promote particular ideas, laws or policies. Associations in the USA have reported that their members have become reluctant to communicate with each other, organise or participate in activities because mass surveillance puts them at risk of revealing their identities and opinions. These associations do not, for the most part, even campaign on security-related issues. Rather, their work is, at most, politically controversial, covering topics such as environmental protection, gun control, drugs liberalisation and equality. These associations have gone so far as to take legal action claiming that their right to free speech has been violated because of the ‘chilling effect’ caused by mass surveillance.

If you’d like more in-depth information or would like to follow up on the evidence and studies we refer to, you can take a look at our full report ‘Security through Human Rights’ here.

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