Web users self-censoring posts since Snowden revelations, study finds

7 Jul 2014

Since former CIA contractor Edward Snowden began revealing the NSA’s surveillance activities, web users have been self-censoring their posts for keywords that would be considered worthy of surveillance, a new study suggests.

Using Google trends between 2012 and 2013, researchers Catherine Tucker and Alex Marthews looked at words entered into Google across the US and eight other countries and found that in that time the number of ‘watchlist’ words as set out by the US’ Department of Homeland Security dropped dramatically during this time, as well as a number of words that could potentially prove embarrassing to the department if they were obtained by data collectors.

The two researchers have referenced the fact that while searches for these terms have decreased considerably on Google, this does not mean the same terms are not being searched for on other privacy-conscious search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, which does not follow a user’s search trends or collect any data from them.

The website saw a 90pc jump in its number of users after Snowden began to reveal the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s activities.

Harmful to online business

From a business point of view, the researchers also suggest a long-term effect with respect to marketing companies who use SEO and keywords to target advertising.

If a product caters to, say, an embarrassing physical or mental issue that someone might have, the affected person might not be receiving the targeted advertising as they are not entering the keywords, something the researchers say could be a “disaster” for them.

Of course, given Google’s business model of relying on advertising, this could have a knock-on effect that might also damage the company in the long term.

“On the basis of the effects we find, the strong possibility of substantial economic effects exists,” the researchers said.

“Such potential adverse economic impacts should be incorporated into the thinking of policy-makers regarding the appropriateness of mass surveillance programmes.”

Google search image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic