I was just starting to write freelance articles on foreign affairs and conflict areas when the full scope of the NSA’s domestic spying program came to light. We learned that the government is tapping into smartphone data, breaking online encryption and gathering data from emails, phone calls and financial transactions. The NSA effectively has all of us under surveillance. You never know who might be listening in on your phone call or reading your email. Each new leak gave me pause.
I worried that I might be under the microscope because of what I was writing. My articles cover the restless areas of the world that are so crucial to United States foreign policy, including detailed reports on the Syrian civil war, drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Egyptian coup and terrorism in North Africa. My articles are strictly news — not manifestos or opinions — and I stand by my words as a journalist. I report facts, using the best news sources as my guide. But even so, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work had attracted attention because of the subject matter.
We live in the age of Big Data, where the little snippets of information (from cell phone conversations, Google searches and email exchanges) add up to form a complete picture of our views, our habits and our preferences. No one can escape the net our governments are casting.
This has caused a lot of concern in the writing community. According to the PEN American Center, 73% of writing professionals surveyed said they had “never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.” Significant numbers had curtailed their activities on social media or avoided discussing certain topics on the phone or via email. Sixteen percent said they had even avoided writing or speaking about a certain topic.
When surveillance is so widespread, it is easy to fall into self-censorship. We want to fly under the radar rather than challenge the infringement on our rights. The framers of the Constitution knew how important a free press was to a democracy — so important, they protected it in the First Amendment. But now, I feel that freedom eroding away.
Censorship is subtle, beginning with the smallest of ideas: That you’re being watched. That worries me, because we need the freedom to write. We need the freedom to report the truth and encourage civil discourse on controversial issues.
I’ve started to carefully consider what I say in emails and text messages and questioned the security of my cloud storage since I heard about the Snowden leaks. I will not be deterred from writing. I hope journalists and editors everywhere will not be deterred from providing their vital service to the public. And I hope normal citizens will not be scared into silence.