Blogs & Comment

Will people behave differently in a post-Snowden world? Don't count on it: Peter Nowak

Vincent Yu (Associated Press)

Vincent Yu (Associated Press)

Heading into 2014, there’s one obvious technological elephant in the room: privacy. Or to explore that euphemism more accurately, the topic that isn’t being discussed is whether people actually want privacy or not.

The answer, which I think we’ll learn in 2014, is “yes, they do,” but with the caveat of “not how we think they do.”

The past year was marked by Edward Snowden’s stunning whistle-blowing on just how much the U.S. National Security Agency, in conjunction with other government organizations around the world, is spying on everyday people. There have already been some repercussions, including large-scale public protests and threats from Europe to block U.S. data-sharing agreements.

Nothing major has happened yet from a policy perspective, with a U.S. judge recently ruling that the NSA’s phone-tapping (at least) is in fact legal. Meanwhile, it’s pretty much business as usual at companies such as Amazon and Google. Lance Ulanoff over at Mashable suggests that if companies and the courts aren’t willing to stop the spying, individuals might start taking matters into their own hands. As he writes, “In 2014, they’ll look for ways to either pull back from social media and smartphone use or use tools that will help shield their activities.”

So far, a diminution of Internet usage hasn’t happened – and suggesting it will is wishful thinking. The volume of generated data is expected to continue to grow exponentially, not just in developing countries but in the advanced world as well, which would seem to indicate that people are largely oblivious to the governmental Panopticon they now find themselves living in. Or, at least they aren’t willing to adjust their behaviour in the face of it.

Technology tracking firm IDC also backs this up with a prediction that the Snowden effect melts away in 2014 and spending on cloud software resumes its brisk growth, to 17% per year versus 4% for regular old software.

This is bound to be an unpopular view with individuals who treasure their privacy and who resent any form of government intrusion in their lives, but there’s also a good explanation for why the mainstream might be indifferent on the issue.

A while back I spoke with Ian Kerr, the Research Chair in Ethics, Law, and Technology at the University of Ottawa, who told me about a study he took part in that involved several privacy commissioners asking kids about their usage of services such as Microsoft’s MSN Messenger and BlackBerry’s BBM. The kids were asked whether they knew that the respective companies owned their communications and could therefore look at them. The kids said they did indeed know, but they didn’t care because using such text-based tools was more private than talking on the phone, which is something that their parents could overhear.

“It was a real eyeopener because what it told the commissioners is that there wasn’t a privacy value, it’s that [kids] place their salience in a different location than other people would,” Kerr said.

The same reasoning can apply to government snooping; the large majority of people may in fact not care that the NSA is listening because it’s not who they want to keep secrets from. If an individual is, say, having an affair, he’s more worried about his wife finding out than the government. And as long as the NSA doesn’t blab, everything’s hunky-dory.

The NSA says its surveillance is a vital part of its counter-terrorism duties. As tough as it might be for critics to admit, it’s entirely possible that the majority of the population is taking the agency at its word – that the average Joe believes that as long as he’s doing nothing inordinately wrong, there’s no harm in having his communications monitored. Snowden himself seems to understand this, saying in a recent interview that his purpose in blowing the whistle was merely so that such conversations can take place.

That’s not to say that any of this is okay. As Ron Diebert, head of the watchful Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, told me earlier this year, government surveillance can easily be turned against people. Also, living in a Panopticon can have adverse effects on the public as a whole:

“As history has shown, there are certainly many episodes where individuals or groups are able to abuse concentrated power and quell political dissent. That’s something we cannot accept if we hope to maintain a liberal, democratic society here in Canada, let alone the rest of the world… Left unchecked, surveillance can create a climate of self-censorship. If they know they’re being watched and all of their activities are being monitored, people tend to be more conservative. That’s something we have to be conscientious of.”

Yet, without concrete examples of this happening, it may be very tough to convince the mainstream public to take up arms against government spying. Absent tangible proof of larger societal harm, which is going to be very difficult to establish, it’s also unlikely that people will curtail their Internet usage. As alarming as Snowden’s revelations are – and there will be more, he has promised – there’s a good chance the status quo will persist on privacy issues in 2014.