BY: Victoria Heath
It’s the biggest leak of government secrets in history, and it all started with a short message to journalist Glenn Greenwald, in December 2012.
“I’ve got some stuff you might be interested in.”
Just a few months later, thousands of classified documents from the National Security Agency (NSA) began appearing on the Internet, thanks to whistleblower, Edward Snowden. The documents range from the mundane, like departmental memos discussing office politics, to the groundbreaking, such as the secret court order allowing the NSA to access customers’ phone records from telecommunication companies, like Verizon.
Snowden – whose Twitter description now reads I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public sector – found himself both revered and hated following the revelations. After making questionable decisions to flee to China, and then Russia (whom he revealed U.S. espionage tactics to) in order to avoid the forthcoming U.S. Government’s wrath, debates began to swirl regarding his status as either a “traitor” or a “patriot.”
The fact is, to some extent we all knew it was happening. Americans in particular were aware (or should’ve been) that since 9/11 and the passing of the Patriot Act, our rights to privacy and Internet freedom had been seriously hacked away under the guise of “security.”
If you didn’t, then I wish I lived in whatever fantasy world you inhabit.
The Snowden revelations were unprecedented however, because they exposed and proved the extent to which those freedoms had been compromised by a government agency. Dr. Jonathon Penney, Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University and a Research Fellow at The Citizen Lab, believes that this particular revelation had a “chilling effect” on American citizens, and citizens elsewhere. His recently published study essentially proves what had been hypothesized for years – government surveillance can negatively impact the ‘legal’ activities of everyday people, including their “access to information and knowledge online.”
The “chilling effect” as a legal doctrine gained popularity during the height of the Cold War in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when communists or perceived socialists were hunted in the U.S. under McCarthyism and dragged in to testify at embarrassing congressional hearings to prove that they were in fact not Russian spies.
Under this doctrine, courts were encouraged to “treat rules or government actions that might deter the free exercise of First Amendment rights with suspicion.” This doctrine was pinned by assumptions made in previous academic research regarding the effects government acts can have on an individual’s behavior. Essentially, the belief was that “certain state acts may chill or deter people from exercising their freedoms or engaging in legal activities.”
Penney utilizes this theory to test his own hypothesis that following the Snowden revelations, traffic to “privacy sensitive” Wikipedia articles declined. These include articles that discussed terrorism-related topics. Using statistical analysis and surveys, Penney found that following the revelations in 2013 there was an “immediate decline in traffic for these Wikipedia articles” of about 30%. His research showed that “over time, as information about government surveillance spreads and is made available even more users might choose not to view the terrorism-related Wikipedia articles.”
For Penney this evidence is extremely significant, because it proves how legal access to and the sharing of information can be inhibited due to the perception of government surveillance, and the subsequent fear that comes from it.
Daniel Solove, Associate Professor at George Washington University Law School, argues “Direct awareness of surveillance (can) make a person feel extremely uncomfortable, but it can also cause that person to alter (their) behavior. Surveillance can lead to self censorship and inhibition.”
If we’re worried about the consequences of informing ourselves about “security” related or “sensitive” topics like terrorism, then how can we maintain a “healthy” democratic society?
Ultimately, it’s up to you. We now live in a Post-Snowden world, where we are no longer “blind” to the antics of our government. This means utilizing your power as a citizen to demand change and take action in order to prevent the self-censoring of society. By informing yourself about sensitive topics and controversial debates on sites like Wikipedia, you are in fact resisting the “chilling effect” and directly opposing Big Brother.