Yesterday I attended a conference at Wilton Park about privacy and security – some really stellar people from all the ‘stakeholders’, industry, government, civil society, academia and others, and from all over the world. A version of the Chatham House rule applied, making the discussion robust and open…. something to which I will return.
At one point, in a conversation over coffee, one of the other delegates asked me a direct question: had I seen any evidence of the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance. They’d been told the previous day by someone from civil society that in the US there had been a direct chill – in particular of advocacy groups – as a result of the Snowden revelations, something that has been reported before a number of times, but that it’s hard to ‘prove’ in ways that seem to convince people. As I sipped my coffee I thought about it – and realised that I, personally, had seen two different but very graphic and direct examples of chill in the past few weeks, though I hadn’t thought of either of them in that kind of a direct way.
The first was the Samaritans Radar debacle. Not just theoretically, but individually I had been told by more than one person that they were keeping off Twitter for a while as a result of feeling under observation as a result of Samaritans Radar. Their tweets could be being scanned, and by people who they didn’t trust, and who they felt could do them harm. The second was even more direct, but I can’t give details. Another person, who felt under real, direct threat – their life in danger – told me they would be keeping offline for a while.
In both cases they felt threatened – not just because they felt under surveillance, but because they felt themselves under surveillance by others who have power over them. The power, it seemed to me, was one of keys – and one of the reasons that so many people, particularly in the UK, don’t find surveillance threatening. Where Samaritans Radar was concerned, a lot of the people affected were the sort of people who are vulnerable in various ways – partly because of their mental health issues, but more directly because they were under threat, whether from trolls and stalkers or from certain people in positions of authority. Some have very good reason to worry about how the local authorities or even mental health services might treat them. Or how their relatives might treat them. For my other friend, the threat was even more direct – and proven.
So yes, the chill of surveillance is real. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s real for precisely those people that need support in freedom of expression terms. People whose voices are heard the least often – and people who have the most need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that our modern communications systems offer. The internet can enable a great deal, particularly for people in those kinds of positions – from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association and much, much more – but surveillance can not just jeopardise that but reverse it. If it only enables freedom of speech for those already with power, it exacerbates the power differences, and makes those already quiet even quieter, whilst those with power and voice can get their messages across even more powerfully.
…which bring me back to the conference, and the Chatham House Rule. Even the existence of the rule makes it clear that we understand that the chilling effect exists. If we know that for people to really speak freely, they need to know that their comments will not be attributed to them – the essence of the rule – then we must make the leap to recognise that surveillance chills. Surveillance is precisely about linking people’s communications to them as individuals – not just what they say, but what they seek out to read. At our conference, we gave ourselves – the vast majority of us people with at least some power and influence – the benefits of this. Surveillance, and mass surveillance by others with power over us – whether that means our or other governments, massive corporations (Google, Facebook etc) or others – denies that benefit to us all.