‘Digital surveillance’ holds one in five writers back

One in five writers have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic owing to the perception of digital surveillance, according to a study co-authored at the University of Strathclyde.

A survey of 118 Scotland-based writers found that this perception had elicited a range of responses, including the avoidance of certain topics – such as terrorism and serious crime - both in their own work and researching online sources.

Writers also modified the theme or setting of fictional works, restricted who they communicate with and made other modifications of behaviour which they believed could result in work being censored.

In addition, the report established a gap between the awareness of surveillance and its potential impact on free expression and the understanding of ways writers can protect themselves, such as the use of privacy-enhancing technologies.

The study was carried out between Strathclyde and Scottish PEN, a not-for-profit organisation that champions freedom of speech and literature across borders. Fiction writers, poets, academics, journalists, editors and publishers participated in the survey.

David McMenemy, report author and Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences, said: “The findings of the report indicate that both corporate and government surveillance are having an effect on what Scottish journalists and authors feel free to write about. The impact on a democratic society of the article or story that should be, but is never, written is incalculable.”

Dr Lauren Smith, report author and researcher previously based at Strathclyde, said: "This report highlights a gap between people's concerns and their digital and technological skills; although people may have concerns about surveillance, they do not necessarily know how they can change their behaviour to increase their privacy and security. A range of technological, legal and academic issues relating to writers' self-censorship are identified, pointing to the need for a multi-agency approach to protecting freedom of expression."

Nik Williams, report author and Project Manager at Scottish PEN, said: “Writers can reveal facts and information hidden from view that can shape and inform public opinion and awareness on vital issues. If writers are avoiding sensitive topics like terrorism, national security and serious crime as this study suggests, society and democracy suffers with the public less able to access independent information from diverse points of view.

“While censorship can be crudely measured by number of writers attacked, intimidated or in prison, the closures of media outlets and publishing houses or the bureaucratic hurdles put in place to restrict different people from expressing themselves, self-censorship is far harder to track. How are we to know when a writer has decided not to publish something due to unknown risks? This survey shows a significant connection between the perception of surveillance and self-censorship that requires further analysis and action to ensure free expression can continue to strengthen democracy and civic participation.”

The study also found that:

• 82% of respondents said that, if they knew that the UK government had collected data about their internet activity they would feel as though their personal privacy had been violated
• 22% have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic due to the perception of surveillance, with another 17% stating they have seriously considered it (39% total)
• 28% have curtailed or avoided activities on social media, with another 13% stating they have seriously considered it (41% total)
• the majority of respondents said the collection of metadata (39%), collection of content data (62%), hacking platforms, networks or devices (60%), and installing backdoors into encrypted platforms (59%) would make them use the internet differently;
• 45% reported that undermining end-to-end encryption would make them use the internet differently;
• 20% said they would consider using the internet and other online tools less frequently and stop using them altogether;
• 12% said they would engage in self-censorship, becoming less open and truthful and more guarded in what they communicated in their work and what they shared publicly.

The study is based on a 2013 report undertaken by PEN America, following the revelations by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, which found that one in six writers had avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance.