Writers Worldwide Chilled by Government Surveillance

Concern over government surveillance has been so heightened by confidential information leaked by former intelligence hand Edward Snowden that writers in free countries are as worried as those in autocratic nations, according to a report released Monday by the PEN American Center.

Three-quarters of writers in countries classified as “free” by Freedom House told PEN researchers they were “worried” or “somewhat worried” by the level of surveillance in their countries. That compares to 80 percent in “not free” countries and 84 percent in “partly free” nations.

Writers in free countries also are engaging in self-censorship as a result of surveillance fears, the report notes. For example, 34 percent of those writers said they avoided or considered avoiding writing or speaking on certain topics due to fear of government surveillance.

“Even a moment’s hesitation in writing or communication is poison for a liberal democracy,” Sophia Cope, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the E-Commerce Times.

Deep Chill

Four out of 10 writers in free countries avoided or considered avoiding interactions on social media because they feared government snoops, the report also revealed.

In addition, nearly a third of the writers in free countries (31 percent) said they steered clear of certain topics in personal phone conversations or email messages for fear of surveillance, while a quarter (26 percent) acknowledged they refrained or seriously considered refraining from running certain Internet searches or visiting specific websites because those searches or websites could be considered suspicious or controversial by their governments.

The research shows just how deep the chill from government surveillance has penetrated democratic nations, observed Emma Llans, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project.

“Writers weren’t asked just about their reluctance in writing and speaking activities, but also social media, personal phone conversations and online searches for information,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

“This is where we really see just what a fundamental threat this sort of mass surveillance can pose,” Llans added. “If you have people who are just not just unwilling to speak but are feeling chilled from researching and thinking about controversial issues, then we can see how these mass surveillance programs are undermining democratic societies.”

Fallen Champion

Revelations about mass surveillance by the U.S. government not only have put fear in the hearts of many writers, but also have harmed the reputation of the United States as a champion of free expression.

In Western Europe, for example, close to half the writers (43 percent) said their native countries offered more protection of free expression than the United States, PEN researchers found. Even in “partly free” countries, a third of the writers (32 percent) felt their right to express themselves was protected locally better than it would have been by Uncle Sam.

Those attitudes aren’t likely to change soon, if ever.

U.S. credibility as a champion of free expression “has been significantly damaged for the long term,” six out of 10 writers Western European writers said.

“I believe there’s been permanent damage,” said Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst with IT Harvest. “Sadly, there’s no going back. We can’t backpedal at this stage.”

However, the constraints writers are placing on themselves may not be entirely negative.

“They’re acting more realistically now than they did before,” Stiennon told the E-Commerce Times.

“If they acted more freely when they were ignorant of the surveillance, at least now they’re being more cautious and more secure,” he pointed out.

Dose of Reality

“This report demonstrates how much damage was done by the NSA’s programs and by Snowden’s revelations about those programs,” Scott Borg, CEO and chief economist with the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, told the E-Commerce Times.

However, the report is a bit misleading, he added.

“Writers in democratic countries have very different standards for comparison with writers in not-free countries,” Borg explained. “If you’re not in a democratic country, you worry about a lot worse consequences from surveillance than you do if you live in one. The worries are not comparable.”

The report makes a number of recommendations: suspension of dragnet monitoring of domestic and international communications; suspension of wholesale collection of telecommunications and digital metadata; and stronger oversight over government surveillance programs.

At question, though, is whether lawmakers will address what the NSA has wrought.

“Whether or not there’s a will, they’re going to be forced to deal with the issue, because on June 1st, some of the provisions of the Patriot Act that authorize these surveillance programs are due to expire,” Katy Glenn Bass, deputy director of Free Expression Programs at the PEN American Center, told the E-Commerce Times.

Still, the prospects for immediate surveillance reform are dim, observed Co3 Systems CTO Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

“In 50 years, we will not spy on everybody,” he told the E-Commerce Times, but “in the next five years, there won’t be any change.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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