The Snowden Effect, Quantified

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The failure of the USA Freedom Act in the Senate earlier this month was a disappointment to many in favor of reforming the National Security Agency. The bill, far from perfect, and certainly incomplete in its scope was thought of by some as a possible first step. To others, it was a way for Congress to pass something that merely looked like reform.

It didn’t advance after a procedural vote axed its life, making the argument about its potential efficacy moot — not even something lightweight could make it through Congress.

So what damn effect has Edward Snowden had on privacy, now far more than a year after the first revelations from the documents? Well as it turns out, we have some new data to measure that.

A global study of more than 20,000 Internet users released this week by the Centre for International Governance Innovation provides us with two data points that we can use:

  • 60% of users have heard about Edward Snowden
  • Of those aware of Edward Snowden, 39% have taken steps to protect their online privacy and security as a result of his revelations

Some have dismissed those percentages as weak. The Hill covered the study with the following headline “Poll: Many concerned over online privacy, but few acting for security.”

I read the data slightly different. First of all, the 60 percent figure comes from respondents in 24 countries. In Germany, it’s 94 percent, in Brazil, it’s 84 percent, and in the United States 76 percent of respondents had heard of Snowden. I highlight those countries, and they have been among the three most rocked by Snowden’s leaks.

In Germany, it became known that the NSA had tapped the phone of its premier, Brazil was roiled by economic espionage, and in the United States tales of dragnet domestic surveillance found a large audience.

Presuming that the 39 percent figure — the number of those “aware” of Snowden who have “taken steps to protect their online privacy and security as a result of his revelations” — is flat across all countries, a conservative way to view the data, we can actually do a little math and see how many people the leaks have led to better run defense for themselves.

39 percent of Germany’s 94 percent awareness figure implies that more than 36 percent of online Germans are taking greater pains to protect their security. Various statistics put German Internet penetration at at least 70 percent (CIA data implies a greater than 80 percent rate, but, again, let’s be conservative). Germany has around 81 million citizens.

So, in a single country, the Snowden effect is that at least 20 million people are trying to be safer and more private online.

I wouldn’t call that small. In fact, that’s pretty damn impressive.