National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden's 2013 mass surveillance revelations caused a drop in website browsing, particularly in internet searches for terms associated with extremism, an example of the most direct evidence yet that the spying operations exposed in the leak had a "chilling effect" on the lawful pursuit of information, an impending report has found.
The paper, due to be published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, argues that the curtailing of browsing for words like "al-Qaeda," "jihad," "Iraq," and "nuclear enrichment" shows that people have become scared to learn about "important policy matters" due to the fear of government surveillance.
Researchers found "compelling evidence for chilling effects associated with online surveillance," as well as "important insights about how we should understand such chilling effects and their scope, including how they interact with other dramatic or significant events (like war and conflict) and their broader implications for privacy, U.S. constitutional litigation, and the health of democratic society," the paper states.
Lead author Jonathan Penney, a PhD candidate at Oxford, analyzed Wikipedia traffic in the months before and after Snowden's 2013 revelations. He found a 20 percent drop in page views of Wikipedia articles on terrorism, particularly those that mentioned car bombs, the Taliban, or al-Qaeda.
"You want to have informed citizens," Penney told the Washington Post. "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."
In the 16 months prior to the first major Snowden stories in June 2013, the articles drew a variable but an increasing audience, with a low point of about 2.2 million per month rising to 3.0 million just before disclosures of the NSA's Internet spying programs. Views of the sensitive pages rapidly fell back to 2.2 million a month in the next two months and later dipped under 2.0 million before stabilizing below 2.5 million 14 months later, Penney found.
The research comes as public opinion increasingly turns against government surveillance. In May 2015, a poll commissioned by the ACLU found that a majority of Americans oppose NSA spying, while a Pew survey found that 87 percent of adults in the U.S. knew of Snowden's revelations.
"I 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," Penney continued. "I was surprised to see what looks to be a longer-term impact from the revelations."
In March 2015, the ACLU also filed a lawsuit against the NSA and the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of Wikipedia's parent organization and other groups, which argues that mass surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches.
"By tapping the backbone of the Internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy," Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said at the time. "Wikipedia is founded on the freedoms of expression, inquiry, and information. By violating our users' privacy, the NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is a central to people's ability to create and understand knowledge."