Impact Surveillance

We’ll never know what stories we’ve lost: understanding the effect of surveillance on freedom of speech

Writer and digital activist, Deji Olukotun, explores the impact of mass surveillance on free speech.

What we know

Intelligence agencies can read our emails, listen to our phone calls, and track our movements as we go about our daily lives. And if they don’t feel like watching us right now, they can store our data to analyse it later. The reason is that we each leave a trail of digital bread crumbs that gives a comprehensive view of our habits and preferences. We now know that surveillance has a major chilling effect upon people such as activists, journalists and artists.

How is this already impacting on free speech?

Last year, a 90-year old human rights organisation called PEN, found that one out of every six writers was self-censoring in the U.S. as a result of Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance. Many authors expressed fears about conducting research on controversial topics - such as nuclear weapons or terrorists - that might falsely implicate them to authorities. PEN conducted another survey with 772 writers from 50 countries and found that the trend is even worse than we previously thought. Thirty-four percent of writers in free countries, 44 percent in partly-free countries, and 61 percent in not free countries are actively self-censoring, and they are avoiding certain topics on social media. The tragedy here is that we may never know what amazing or important stories have been lost - because many writers have now become too afraid to write them.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Sherman Alexie, a poet and author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which incidentally is one of the most frequently challenged books in America. I asked him his thoughts about surveillance and he replied: “Welcome to the Indian world.” His point was that, in the U.S., marginalised minorities have frequently been surveiled by authorities. That is because surveillance is most often targeted at groups that can’t defend themselves. Journalists and artists are regularly monitored by security services because they may spread unpopular viewpoints, or they may question authorities who would rather not have their actions revealed. Last year, for example, five journalists in Myanmar were sentenced to 10 years in prison for reporting on the building of a weapons factory and the displacement of local villagers. This year the journalist James Risen finally ended a seven year legal battle in which he was threatened with jail time by U.S. authorities for refusing to reveal the sources of his stories.

Can we protect ourselves?

Thankfully, there are many tools available to make sharing these stories easier. Journalists can utilise encryption tools that scramble their communications or they can surf the web anonymously through the Tor network, which connects the user to the web through a series of random layers. Or journalists can completely skip the use of their normal Windows or Mac operating systems and use TAILS, an autonomous operating system that combines many of the tools above. Freedom of the Press Foundation also developed SecureDrop, a tool that allows sources to anonymously provide information to help journalists write their stories.

Still, no security tool is perfect. It may have a flaw in coding that may one day be discovered and exploited by governments or criminals. That’s why we prefer open source tools that have been audited by the security community.

How we fight for privacy today

At Access, the advocacy group I work for, we support at-risk users to protect their digital rights. We also partner with other groups around the world to pressure governments and corporations to respect our privacy and freedom of expression. We believe that enabling all people to speak securely by encrypting their digital communications is one of the best ways forward.

The surveillance state is more slippery, complex, and entrenched than anyone truly imagined. I’m a writer as well as an activist, and I know for a fact that I think twice before I search for controversial topics while writing my fiction stories. If it happens to me - someone who works as an activist - then it’s terrifying to imagine how many more stories we have already lost.

Should access to the web be a human right and what are the complexities of this question?

  • Deji Olukotun
  • Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a novel out now from Unnamed Press. He fights for digital rights around the world at the organisation Access.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.