Measuring the Damage Surveillance Does to Democracy


Stop  watching me protest
Demonstrators call for an end to mass surveillance by the National Security Agency in October 2013. (Photo: Elvert Barnes Photography/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The right to be forgotten. The right not be ‘gotten’ in the first place. The right of the government – or marketers or employers — to look at my personal social media. Or my encrypted iPhone. The day-to-day implications of Big Data.

These are all issues in the news right now, and gaining added attention because they affect such a huge proportion of citizens in the developed world. So it’s probably no surprise that a special issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly that addresses these and other issues head on is making waves even before its official June release.

“Information Access and Control in an Age of Big Data,” guest-edited by Edward L. Carter of Brigham Young University and Laurie Thomas Lee of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, features qualitative and quantitative research addressing access to and control of information in an age of Big Data.

One intriguing article comes from researcher Elizabeth Stoycheff, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University, who looked at the self-censoring “spiral of silence” that follows from people being reminded that government surveillance of their online opinions is possible. Given that a big majority of Americans know that the government runs online surveillance programs (and a majority said last year they think that’s a bad thing), Stoycheff asked “does awareness and justification of these initiatives alter individuals’ willingness to disclose unpopular political beliefs online?”

An article in the Washington Post described the design of her experiment, which was given to 224 average American adults:

Participants in the study were first surveyed about their political beliefs, personality traits and online activity, to create a psychological profile for each person. A random sample group was then subtly reminded of government surveillance, followed by everyone in the study being shown a neutral, fictional headline stating that U.S. airstrikes had targeted the Islamic State in Iraq. Subjects were then asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward the hypothetical news event, such as how they think most Americans would feel about it and whether they would publicly voice their opinion on the topic. The majority of those primed with surveillance information were less likely to speak out about their more nonconformist ideas, including those assessed as less likely to self-censor based on their psychological profile.

Some argue that if you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t matter if the government looks over your shoulder (especially when fears of terrorism erode concern about personal privacy). But Stoycheff says she finds such rationales “deeply troubling” and suggests that we all might have something to hide when it comes to our opinions, and he experiments suggest that citizens online might indeed start to gatekeep their own minority opinions rather than share them on the ‘democratic’ web. This self-suppression was particularly evident among people who otherwise see value in having the government monitoring social media – and almost nonexistent among those who oppose government snooping .


Snoop scoop

The National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault is an online resource documenting various aspects of U.S. government cyber activity, including hacking and defenses against hacking, cyber intelligence, and cyberwar. The vault includes documentation on foreign government and international organizations’ cyber activities. It currently includes more than 150 curated items, which is added to weekly.Visit it here.


“The fact that the ‘nothing to hide’ individuals experience a significant chilling effect speaks to how online privacy is much bigger than the mere lawfulness of one’s actions,” she told the Post’s Karen Turner. “It’s about a fundamental human right to have control over one’s self-presentation and image, in private, and now, in search histories and metadata.”

“This is the first study,” Stoycheff wrote in her conclusion to the paper, “to provide empirical evidence that the government’s online surveillance programs may threaten the disclosure of minority views and contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion.”

Her concerns were echoed by a very prominent advocate of freedom of information, Edward Snowden, who was namechecked in the study’s abstract

“This is a landmark,” Snowden tweeted. “Data shows surveillance is harming democracy.”

Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who lifted the lid on the extent of Western governments’ monitoring activities, is on the run from the U.S. government and currently living at an undisclosed location in Russia. Ironically, his own exploits had their own chilling effect in online behavior.

And in another article in the special issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, authors Hongliang Chen, Christopher E. Beaudoin, and Traci Hong, all from Texas A&M University, confirm that “people who experience online negative privacy experiences are more likely to adopt online privacy protection behaviors.” While that’s great for protecting your bank account, it’s less welcome for creating a robust debate on important issues.

In the end, Stoycheff wrote in her article, democratic governments must respond to her findings just as vigorously as they respond to terrorism. “While proponents of such programs argue surveillance is essential for maintaining national security, more vetting and transparency is needed as this study shows it can contribute to the silencing of minority views that provide the bedrock of democratic discourse.” And, she added, academics have a role in furthering the discussion: “Communication scholars and policymakers alike should continue to investigate how surveillance—both by government and commercial enterprises—shapes how individuals use the Internet to interact, discuss political issues, and seek new information.”


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Angel Healy

Both points are valid. The other one’s concerned with the cyber security while the other is all for privacy and freedom of expression. Where do we draw the line? Which side does really weigh a lot? There should be a compromise from both ends, which will satisfy each other’s rights.

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