Snowden revelations had chilling effect on web browsing

Snowden revelations had chilling effect on web browsing
© Getty

Edward Snowden’s bombshell disclosures of the government's massive digital surveillance programs dramatically curtailed people’s web browsing habits, according to new research.

After the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor revealed the existence of numerous clandestine digital spying programs in mid-2013, people became less likely to visit Wikipedia pages that mentioned sensitive topics such as “al-Qaeda,” “jihad,” “Iraq,” or “nuclear enrichment.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Overall, internet traffic to 48 Wikipedia pages related to terrorism dropped nearly 30 percent after the world became aware of the NSA’s online snooping.

This behavior suggests a serious “chilling effect” on digital free speech, wrote Jonathon Penney, a fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, who conducted the study.

And it could have “implications for the health of democratic deliberation among citizens,” he added in the paper, set to be published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. 

Notably, Penney looked at terms the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses when scanning social media platforms.

Penney’s research dovetails with findings from last year that showed a heightened reluctance to use certain terrorism-related search terms — such as “anthrax” or “dirty bomb” — on Google after the Snowden documents were covered worldwide.

“Our results suggest that there is a chilling effect on search behavior from government surveillance on the Internet, and that government surveillance programs may damage the international competitiveness of US-based Internet firms,” said the researchers, privacy advocate Alex Marthews and MIT’s Catherine Tucker. 

The studies provide the flip side of recent allegations from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that Snowden’s leaks advanced encryption technology by seven years.

Law enforcement officers have decried this rapid acceleration at companies like Apple and Google, as it has locked investigators out of the communications of criminals and terrorists. 

"From our standpoint, it’s not a good thing,” Clapper said.