Skip to main content

After Snowden, we're self-censoring and we don't care

By Suzanne Nossel
December 4, 2013 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Since Edward Snowden released more than 200,000 classified documents, some writers say they have censored themselves.
Since Edward Snowden released more than 200,000 classified documents, some writers say they have censored themselves.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Suzanne Nossel: Edward Snowden has done damage to international relations
  • Nossel: Some writers have begun censoring themselves out of fear
  • Nossel: Still, many average Americans may not see the intrusion as that big of a deal

Editor's note: Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the PEN American Center, an organization founded in 1922 representing about 4,000 U.S. writers who advocate for freedom of expression.

(CNN) -- When Edward Snowden unleashed the flood of classified documents and surveillance data secreted from U.S. spy agencies earlier this year, it is unclear if he anticipated the high-level damage it would do to U.S. international relations.

Headlines have focused on irate calls by heads of state to President Barack Obama and parliamentary moves to restore privacy. Diplomats have been summoned to repair fractured relationships.

Suzanne Nossel
Suzanne Nossel

And just this week, the United Nations' senior counterterrorism special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, announced that he would launch an investigation into the surveillance tactics used by American and British intelligence agencies citing the Snowden leaks at "the very apex of public interest concerns."

Yet for all the ruckus globally, the most enduring damage from omnipresent surveillance may be right here at home.

Early evidence suggests that knowing that our e-mails, phone calls and social media circles are being vacuumed up into a giant government database may reshape what we say and write, and whom we associate with.

Surveillance may be chipping away not just at our privacy, but at the American values of freedom of expression and association enshrined in the First Amendment.

Snowden: NSA reform justify leaks
'We live in a post-Snowden age'
Snowden: I did world a public service

Invasion of privacy or no big deal?

Yet while foreign politicians are up in arms, many Americans are shrugging their shoulders. There have been lawsuits, bills introduced in Congress and even a few public demonstrations. But surveys from Pew Research indicate that the National Security Agency programs are actually supported by roughly half of Americans, even though many believe that their own personal e-mails and calls have been read or listened to.

However, a survey of American writers done in October revealed that nearly one in four has self-censored for fear of government surveillance. They fessed up to curbing their research, not accepting certain assignments, even not discussing certain topics on the phone or via e-mail for fear of being targeted. The subjects they are avoiding are no surprise -- mostly matters to do with the Middle East, the military and terrorism.

Because they rely on free expression for their work and livelihoods, some writers may be more prone to caution in what they say and who they say it to for fear of activating an NSA tripwire.

But as awareness of mass surveillance sets in for the general public, it is hard to imagine the rest of us will be far behind. In a country that has prided itself for the world's staunchest protections of free speech and association, certain subjects, names, and ideas may become virtually off-limits for all those who'd rather not tangle with the NSA.

Topics that are foreign, alien or frightening may become all the more so if researchers, writers, journalists and even students are afraid to investigate and explain them.

Surveillance so intrusive it is putting certain subjects out of bounds would seem like cause for alarm in a country that prides itself as the world's most free. Americans have long protested the persecution and constraints on journalists and writers living under repressive regimes abroad, yet many seem ready to accept these new encroachments on their freedom at home.

We've already given it away

Some Americans' relative nonchalance toward the government prying into e-mails and calls we long thought were private may stem in part from knowing that we have already ceded so much of our privacy voluntarily. Social media, online shopping, and simple browsing have become semi-public acts. It's hard to know who can see what, and worrying about it can stand in the way of buying a birthday present, posting a great photo or getting your taxes done.

Moreover, for most Americans, learning that the government is a lurking hidden online "friend" doesn't evoke the fears it would have in communist Eastern Europe or today's Russia or Iran.

Because we are all subject to the NSA's intrusions, there is no single group -- not Muslims, or African-Americans, or people of Middle Eastern descent -- that has emerged as a target of these newly revealed programs.

While Americans are used to fighting against discrimination, we are less accustomed to standing up for rights to privacy, expression and association that belong to us all.

Finally, because of the utter secrecy of the programs -- schemes we would not even know about short of Snowden's astonishing breach -- unless you're Angela Merkel you wouldn't know whether you were under investigation, questioned at the airport, or denied a visa because of something you said or wrote.

It may be years, if ever, before stories come to light of people done in by their own texts, web-surfing or Facebook posts.

Did it really matter?

When the Snowden story first broke, Obama claimed that the newly exposed programs had foiled 50 terrorist plots. After reading through a classified list of the thwarted assaults, Sen. Patrick Leahy called the figure "plainly wrong."

In the few cases where details have been released, journalists and intelligence experts have argued that the evidence gathered through surveillance could have been obtained in other ways, or wasn't crucial.

Not all surveillance powers are bad. The Congress and courts have, for decades, focused on where to draw the boundaries to ensure that both we and our constitutional rights are kept safe.

With new and expansive surveillance technologies, and new evidence that our most treasured rights may be at risk, the public is depending on judges and representatives to demand the information they need to properly weigh up the purported benefits of surveillance, as well as its harms.

Americans shouldn't be out-outraged by the international community about a program that puts our own liberties at risks.

The public's dulled senses when it comes to online privacy should not be grounds for forfeiting the rights the Founding Fathers put first above all others.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Suzanne Nossel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT