Surveillance fears are causing people to be more cautious online — and that’s good

Two in five Americans are increasingly cautious about their use of the internet following the NSA surveillance leaks, according to a Harris poll commissioned by security outfit ESET. This is pretty much what I and many others predicted when the agency’s data snooping scandal broke last year – an outbreak of self-censorship.
According to the poll, 85 percent of the 2,034 people surveyed were at least somewhat aware of the scandal. Of those, 47 percent (so 40 percent of the total) now “think more carefully about where they go, what they say, and what they do online.” Over a quarter of the 85 percent are now doing less online banking and shopping, and just under a quarter are “less inclined to use email.”
Though recent high-profile data breaches may also be a psychological factor, for the internet industry, this shows the worst effects of the surveillance scandal. As much as Google(s goog), Facebook(s fb) and the like have worried about being directly linked to the activities of the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ, they must have an even greater fear of overall declining trust in the internet — 60 percent of respondents who were familiar with the revelations said they were now less trusting of ISPs and software companies in general. If trust goes down, growth will be more limited, and nobody wants that.

Pick your poison

As I previously argued, knowledge of surveillance effectively creates a form of control. With the knowledge that one is being watched at all times, a chilling effect is a natural consequence. One is less likely to even talk about stepping out of line, for fear of being targeted at some point in the future. No censor of speech is more powerful than the self, even if the NSA never intended for that censorship to take place.
However, consider how things would be had Edward Snowden not told the world it was under surveillance. The world would still be under surveillance – it just wouldn’t know about it. This brings us back to the classic red pill/blue pill choice: is it better to know the ugliness of reality, or to remain in blissful ignorance?
As depressing as the last 10 months have been – and I have at times found them almost overwhelmingly so – it is better that we know the level of scrutiny, and in effect control, under which we live. It is painful, but empowering. Without knowledge, we cannot remedy the situation.

Rational response

Some of the newfound caution displayed by the Harris survey’s respondents may be overkill, but an awful lot of it is actually quite sensible. There’s no inherent threat in online shopping and banking, for example, but if you’re worried about your life being painstakingly detailed through big data systems, or about being victimized by hackers thanks to weakened security systems, holding back is maybe not so dumb.
Being less open over email is definitely not dumb. If you don’t use end-to-end encryption (and very few people do), your emails are open to scrutiny if the authorities knock on the door of your webmail provider. Even if you do use end-to-end encryption, some of the metadata associated with the email is impossible to mask – it is an inherently insecure format.
And then there’s the issue of mining emails for commercial data. Indeed, more of those Americans surveyed in this poll had surveillance and data gathering by companies for profit as their top concern (58 percent of those who knew about the NSA revelations) than those who were most bothered by data gathering by the government for national security reasons (21 percent). This scandal opened a real can of worms for all concerned.
What seems to be happening here is that people are learning to defend themselves against multiple perceived attackers, unfortunately through actions that also amount to self-censorship. But again, knowledge is empowering: the more conscious people become of this stuff, the more they will agitate for change. Their predictable reticence at this point is certainly a driver for the tech giants’ anti-government-surveillance moves, and hopefully it will eventually spur changes to the providers’ own surveillance-oriented business models.
The internet has promised us so much, and delivered much of it. No one wants to see all that potential squelched by a bunch of overweening spooks. Hopefully one day we will see the results of current moves to re-secure the online experience — rising levels of confidence and freedom, and therefore usage.
This article was updated at 9.15am PT to reflect that 40 percent of respondents, not 47 percent, said they were changing their online behavior as a result of the snooping scandal, and to add a couple other details that come from having seen the full research results.