How risky is it to use the words “bomb,” “plague,” or “gun” online? That was a question we posed, tongue in cheek, with a web toy we built last year called Hello NSA. It offers users suggested tweets that use words that drawn from a list of watchwords that analysts at the Dept. of Homeland Security are instructed to search for on social media. “Stop holding my love hostage,” one of the tweets read. “My emotions are like a tornado of fundamentalist wildfire.”
It was silly, but it was also imagined as an absurdist response to the absurdist ways that dragnet surveillance of the public and non-public Internet jars with our ideas of freedom of speech and privacy.
And yet, after reading the mounting pile of NSA PowerPoints, are all of us as comfortable as we used to be Googling for a word like “anthrax,” even if we were simply looking up our favorite thrash metal band? Maybe not.
According to a new study of Google search trends, searches for terms deemed to be sensitive to government or privacy concerns have dropped “significantly” in the months since Edward Snowden’s revelations in July.
“It seemed very possible that we would see no effect,” MIT economist Catherine Tucker and digital privacy advocate Alex Marthews write. “However, we do in fact see an overall roughly 2.2 percentage point fall in search traffic on ‘high government trouble’-rated search terms.”
Here is the abstract:
This paper uses data from Google Trends on search terms from before and after the surveillance revelations of June 2013 to analyze whether Google users’ search behavior shifted as a result of an exogenous shock in information about how closely their internet searches were being monitored by the U. S. government. We use data from Google Trends on search volume for 282 search terms across eleven different countries. These search terms were independently rated for their degree of privacy-sensitivity along multiple dimensions. Using panel data, our result suggest that cross-nationally, users were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the U. S. government. In the U. S., this was the main subset of search terms that were affected. However, internationally there was also a drop in traffic for search terms that were rated as personally sensitive. These results have implications for policy makers in terms of understanding the actual effects on search behavior of disclosures relating to the scale of government surveillance on the Internet and their potential effects on international competitiveness.
Marthews, Alex and Tucker, Catherine, Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior (March 24, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2412564 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2412564