Despite continuing media coverage, the public’s
privacy behaviors have hardly changed.
BY SÖREN PREIBUSCH
MASS MEDIA HAVE been reporting on global-scale
state surveillance following former NSA contractor
Edward J. Snowden’s exposure of PRISM in June
2013. Extensive, continuing news coverage makes
this revelation a natural experiment. In a longitudinal
study from May 2013 to January 2014, I examined the
immediate and longer-term effects on Web use in the
U.S. I combined evidence of privacy self-protection
and behaviors indicating an interest in privacy.
Users’ interest rose after the PRISM revelation but
returned to and even fell below original levels despite
continuing media coverage. I found no sustained
growth in the user base of privacy-en-
hancing technologies (such as anony-
mizing proxies). The worldwide public
revelation of PRISM affected individu-
als’ interest less than other breaking
news concerning sports and gossip.
My results challenge the assumption
that Web users would start to care
more about their privacy following a
major privacy incident. The contin-
ued reporting on state surveillance by
the media contrasts with the public’s
quickly faded interest.
Many details about PRISM and related cyberintelligence initiatives, including Tempora and XKeyScore, are still
unknown by the public,
8 though news
coverage following June 6, 2013 was
thorough and steady.
5 For the first time
since 2009, the U.S. national newspaper USA Today reported on government
surveillance on its front page,
7 and The
Washington Post ran a front-page article
on the invasion of privacy for the first
time in 2013,
16 prompting contentious
discussion of the revelations among
privacy experts, as well as politicians
and advocates, worldwide.
Mass media is able to set the public
agenda through increased coverage of a
12 However, little is known about
how media salience of privacy might
steer public opinion and behavior toward caring more about privacy. Previous media analyses suffered from unreliable and temporarily sparse measures
of privacy concern17 or simply ignored
the public’s response.
21 The PRISM
˽ In June 2013, Snowden revealed
worldwide government surveillance,
a privacy shock also representing a
natural experiment in the study of privacy
˽ The effect on the public’s interest in
privacy and behaviors was limited
and short-lived despite long-running,
in-depth media coverage.
˽ High-resolution data from multiple
sources shows the greatest privacy
meltdown of our time had only a small
impact on Web users beyond debates
among journalists and academic