The Impact of Online Surveillance on Behavior

Privacy and Security, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Search and Advertising

Article Snapshot


Alex Marthews and Catherine Tucker


The Cambridge Handbook of Surveillance Law, David Gray and Stephen E. Henderson, eds., Cambridge University Press, pp. 437-454, 2017


Online surveillance has a chilling effect on online behavior, affecting Google searches, Wikipedia use, and expression of controversial opinions. Researchers can study consumer behavior before and after the shock of revelations about surveillance in 2013.

Policy Relevance

Policymakers should recognize that surveillance has a chilling effect on online speech.

Main Points

  • Some claim that digital surveillance is less likely to affect behavior than more traditional surveillance, such as the sight of a police cruiser parked beside the road.
  • In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting massive electronic surveillance.
  • Courts have been reluctant to approve lawsuits that would shut down this surveillance, afraid to intervene with a government program operating on such a massive scale; evidence that surveillance affects individual’s behavior would be useful to courts and policymakers.
  • Snowden’s revelations produced a “shock” effect on online activities that could be studied, but at first only limited survey evidence was available.
  • Data from Google and a compilation of search terms likely to bring searchers to the attention of the government shows that the Snowden’s revelations affected online searches.
    • Across 41 countries, Google searches for terms rated likely to get one in trouble with the government fell about 4 percent.
    • Take-up of search engines other than Google boomed, though users of alternative search engines remained few in number overall.
  • Traffic to Wikipedia pages dealing with terrorism was also affected by the Snowden revelations.
  • Data showing how the Snowden revelations affected non-search behavior such as a Facebook and Twitter postings is more difficult to collect.

Get The Article

Find the full article online

Search for Full Article