German studies eight years ago show that surveillance brings horrible self-censorship. Why is this news to the US now?

Posted on Mar 30, 2016 by Rick Falkvinge

Yesterday, a big study broke in the Washington Post about how a mass surveillance regime is dangerous to society, and shows it silences minority opinions when people know they’re being watched. Thus, it made the chilling effect go from theoretical to academic. What’s troubling is that there have been non-US studies showing this for upward of a decade – why haven’t they been referenced in the US debate?

The new study, as described by the Washington Post, illustrates how people self-censor dissenting and minority opinions in a mass surveillance regime. While this is absolutely important, and this effect must be first and foremost in any policymaking – far before any budget increase for a toy-happy surveillance department – it’s not news. This was known in large European studies almost a decade ago. Why have those studies been neglected in the US debate?

Even Snowden calls the newly-published study a “landmark”:

However, looking at when Germany created its (most recent) mass surveillance regime with Data Retention following the 2004 Madrid bombings and the politicians’ following populist spree, there were tons and tons of studies on whether this surveillance changed the behavior of ordinary Germans – whether measuring a behavior changed the behavior.

And did it? When ordinary Germans knew that every phonecall they made was being logged for the explicit and express purpose of being used against them in the future, did that change behavior in any way?

Hell yes it did.

It changed behavior enormously.

Specifically, a study by the respectable Forsa, which was referenced by Heise and others, showed that half of Germans would stop making phonecalls that could be used against them in the future. This included a large list of phonecalls that could somehow identify them as “weaker” – suicide hotlines, drug helplines, even marriage counselling.

It’s been known at least since 2008 that mass surveillance suppresses any behavior seen as minority behavior, undesirable behavior, or weak behavior, and this is a huge effect.

Moreover, these are calls that we want people to make. When somebody’s not feeling well, we want them to seek help for it. But as the German study shows, mass surveillance causes people to not seek assistance, for it can be used against them in the future.

As stated – in English – by the German working group at the time:

A study commissioned in 2008 shows that data retention is acting as a serious deterrent to the use of telephones, mobile phones, e-mail and Internet. The survey conduced by research institute Forsa found that with communications data retention in place, one in two Germans would refrain from contacting a marriage counsellor, a psychotherapist or a drug abuse counsellor by telephone, mobile phone or e-mail if they needed their help. One in thirteen people said they had [already] refrained from using telephone, mobile phone or e-mail at least once because of [the upcoming] data retention, which extrapolates to 6.5 million Germans in total [out of 82 million].

The study was conducted before the mass surveillance switches were turned on in 2008. It’s noteworthy that a sizable part of the population had already stopped making such sensitive reachouts to professional help.

For the record, the mass surveillance in question was later struck down by Germany’s Constitutional Court as completely incompatible with human rights. The European Court of Justice – the European “Supreme Court” – later affirmed this at the European level.

So why has the US debate acted as though this hard data doesn’t even exist? Does the United States have to repeat all mistakes of others on its own?

Meanwhile, privacy remains your own responsibility.

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  1. ALan

    In germany you get your house raided if you have the wrong opinion.

    7 years ago