The Chilling Effects of Digital Surveillance

This is an adapted and translated presentation given following the Scientifica Warm-Up screening of Brazil (1985), 23 August 2019, KOSMOS, Zurich, Switzerland

In the following, I would like to present two aspects of today’s digital surveillance situation and a consequence of this with a link to current research. The first aspect is “blind” trust in technology; the second is inevitability. One consequence of this is a chilling effect. The first aspect is a not absolute, but very widespread blind trust in technology. Bureaucracy and dependence on technology are evident in the film [Brazil]: Toasters etc. don’t at all work as they should, but their adequacy is not questioned. There are forms and predefined processes for everything. Today the situation is not much different, there are just different technological devices. Essentially all domains of life centrally involve digital information and communication technologies and the outputs of these technologies appear in a cloak of objectivity, e.g., algorithmic recommendations. There are certainly many advantages, but when you realize that this technology does not always work, your own thinking and skills may no longer be prepared to solve the problem.

This belief in or dependence on technology goes hand in hand with the second aspect, inevitability. On the one hand, this is the inevitability of being surveilled. Even when one is aware of surveillance, there is often little one can do about it. Option 1 is participation without really, internally supporting the cause, and forms of passive resistance. This can lead to change, but also cynicism and fatalism. In the case of Sam Lowry, it is a mental escape into imagination, but he still has to deal with the real-life consequences. Option 2 would be physical escape from the system. For Sam it might have been possible, but today surveillance takes place globally and automated, in real time. A symbol for this is the logo of the launch of a satellite of the US National Reconnaissance Office, an octopus wrapping its arms around the globe, captioned “nothing is beyond our reach.” On the other hand, it is the inevitability of contributing to traceability. Theoretically it may be possible not to be filmed anywhere, or not to use the Internet at all. However, this means social exclusion, since almost every form of social life produces digital traces. What remains are strategies of self-protection, often with unknown effectiveness, such as using encrypted platforms for communication. An important point here is that this often requires specific skills and resources, which are tied to social inequalities.

Surveillance takes place, but the perception thereof is the motivator of individuals’ actions. In the film, the illusion of non-surveillance was no longer possible, and this is still partly possible today. The Department of Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich has collected current data on the user perspective. According to the World Internet Project – Switzerland, 38% of Internet users believe governments are surveilling their Internet use. What consequences does this have? If people believe or know that they are being surveilled—and we assume that most of them are not pursuing illegal behavior—this can deter them from exercising permitted or even socially desirable behavior without the state ever directly exerting power.

This brings me to a consequence of the current situation, chilling effects. The term has been around for some time, but in the context of digitization and somewhat generalized, a chilling effect is the deterrent effect of an actual or threatened intervention—which surveillance is—on legitimate behavior or fundamental rights, and this deterrence acts on third parties in the sense of anticipatory obedience (German: vorauseilender Gehorsam). How does this manifest itself in concrete terms? Jonathon Penney analyzed how web traffic to privacy-sensitive Wikipedia articles (e.g., Al Qaeda, Iraq, Car bomb, Nationalism, Fundamentalism) changed after the publicization of NSA surveillance practices in June 2013. A main finding was that traffic to these articles significantly and immediately declined following Edward Snowden’s revelations—although, of course, reading up on any of these topics is entirely legitimate citizen behavior.

The World Internet Project – Switzerland has collected survey data on this topic, which, although it cannot measure actual behavioral changes, nevertheless provide indications of a chilling effect. Survey participants who were Internet users were told to imagine that they were searching for information on a sensitive topic, for example, by using a search engine. Then, they were told that the possibility of surveillance deters some people from doing this and asked how often this also applied to them. 40% said never; but overall, nearly 60% experience this: 29% said that this happened to them rarely, sometimes (15%), often (9%), or always (5%). That is, in a digital society where much information is freely available, people report readily modifying their behavior despite an interest in certain topics, to avoid raising any suspicion, to conform to the arbitrariness of an imagined observer of their actions. As such, in a society where the surveilled use of digital information and communication technologies is de facto non-optional, chilling effects may be a subtle, long-term and cumulative risk for individual autonomy and collective action.


Büchi, M., Fosch Villaronga, E., Lutz, C., Tamò-Larrieux, A., Velidi, S., & Viljoen, S. (2019). Chilling Effects of Profiling Activities: Mapping the Issues. Retrieved from

Büchi, M., Fosch-Villaronga, E., Lutz, C., Tamò-Larrieux, A., Velidi, S., & Viljoen, S. (2019). The chilling effects of algorithmic profiling: Mapping the issues. Computer Law & Security Review, 1–15.

Büchi, M., Just, N., & Latzer, M. (2017). Caring is not enough: The importance of Internet skills for online privacy protection. Information, Communication & Society, 20(8), 1261–1278.

Gilliam, T. (1985). Brazil [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Embassy International Pictures.

Latzer, M., Büchi, M., Festic (in press). Internet und Politik in der Schweiz 2019 [The Internet and Politics in Switzerland 2019]. Reseaerch Report from the World Internet Project – Switzerland. Zurich, University of Zurich.

Micheli, M., Lutz, C., & Büchi, M. (2018). Digital footprints: An emerging dimension of digital inequality. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 16(3), 242–251.

Penney, J. W. (2016). Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 31(1), 117–182.


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