Little Change in Online Behavior Following Snowden Revelations

Pew Research Center survey finds that most Americans have done little or nothing to change their online behaviors nearly two years after the first NSA spying revelations emerged.

Some 30 percent of American adults say they have altered their digital behavior in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations in order to hide information from the government.

In Spring 2013, Snowden, a then NSA contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton, remotely accessed the NSA’s Ft. Meade networks from a satellite office on Hawaii and stole a massive trove of secret documents detailing the U.S. signals intelligence agency’s extensive surveillance capabilities and spying operations. Nearly two years after the initial release, Snowden, now exiled in Russia, is still publishing new revelatory documents about the NSA and its partner’s activities.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey, seeking to determine the extent to which these revelations have changed the way people communicate and behave online as well as people’s approval of and opinions about surveillance.

In all, 87 percent of respondents were aware of the NSA’s spying operations to some extent. Among those, 34 percent had actively changed their online behavior. That group accounted for 30 percent of the entire research sample, which consisted of 475 randomly selected adults. In nearly every scenario tested, younger adults were more likely to have disapproved of spying and made changes in light of the revelations. Men were more likely to have heard more about surveillance than woman and college graduates more likely than people with only a high school diploma or less. In general, the more informed the respondent was about government surveillance, the more likely that person was to either disapprove of spying or change online behavior because of it.

Specifically, 17 percent of respondents changed the privacy settings on their social media accounts, 15 percent reported to use social media less often, 15 percent said they’ve avoided certain mobile applications and 13 percent have uninstalled apps. In addition, 14 percent claimed they speak more in person instead of communicating online or via phone and 13 percent have avoided using certain terms in online communications.

Anecdotally, many respondents reported self-censoring themselves online to avoid communicating about or searching for information that could be deemed threatening, even when such searches were merely out of curiosity and such conversations were in jest.

Numerically speaking, 18 percent claim to have changed the way they send emails, 17 percent reported changes in search behavior, 15 percent said they changed social networking tendencies and 15 percent say they are using their cell phones differently.

A quarter of those who were aware of NSA surveillance reported having deployed more complicated passwords as a result.

More than half of those surveyed, 57 percent to be exact, say it is “unacceptable” for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens. Not surprisingly if you’ve been following the revelations, Americans are comfortable with their government targeting foreigners for surveillance, but not themselves. However, most respondents said they are losing confidence that the public interest is being served by surveillance programs. The public is evenly split about the capacity of the judicial system to balance privacy rights with intelligence needs.

Specifically, 82 percent believe it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists, 60 percent believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders, another 60 percent think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders, 54 percent say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens and only 40 percent fell it is okay for the government to monitor ordinary U.S. citizens.

Respondents were more accepting of surveillance when they were asked about its use in specific scenarios such as monitoring people who have visited sites containing child pornography or anti-American sentiments, those who had communicated with”an imam who preached against infidels,” those who used search engines to research weapons and explosives, made unusual banking withdrawals, used encryption to hide files and people who follow others on social media who say hateful things about American leaders.

Just 10 percent of respondents say they have used an alternative search engine that does not track search history. Only five percent have added privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins. Four percent have adopted mobile encryption for calls and text messages, three percent have used proxy servers can help them avoid surveillance, two percent have adopted email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), two percent have used anonymity software such as Tor and only one percent have used locally-networked communications such as FireChat.

These low adoption rates may well relate to another finding stating that more than half of respondents believe it would be too difficult to increase their security and privacy online. 53 percent have not adopted or considered using a search engine that doesn’t keep track of a user’s search history and another 13 percent said they don’t even know about these tools. 46 percent have not adopted or considered using email encryption programs and another 31 percent said they didn’t know such things existed. 43 percent have not adopted or considered adding privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins while 31 percent did not know about these plug-ins. 41 percent haven’t adopted or considered using proxies with an additional 33 percent having no awareness of them. And 40 percent have not adopted or considered using anonymity software such as Tor while another 39 percent don’t even know about Tor.

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