Scottish Chilling

Authored alongside researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Scottish PEN has explored the impact of surveillance on the willingness of Scotland-based writers to cover sensitive topics in their work, research and communications with others.

For a downloadable copy of the report click here


One in five writers surveyed have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic due to the perception of digital surveillance

In collaboration with researchers at the University ofStrathclyde, Scottish PEN has undertaken a study exploring whether the perception of surveillance encourages writers to censor themselves, avoiding certain issues in their work, research and communication with others.

The report ScottishChilling: Impact of Government and Corporate Surveillance on Writers, based on a survey completed by 118 Scotland-based writers, including fiction writers, poets, academics, journalists, editors and publishers, as well as follow up interviews, revealed that the perception of surveillance has encouraged a range of reactions from writers including the avoidance of certain topics including terrorism and serious crime both in their own work and researching online sources, modifying the theme or setting of fictional work, restricting who they communicate with and other modifications of behaviour which may result in work being censored. This study is based on a 2013 PEN America report, Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives US Writers to Self-Censor and looks to extend the approach to Scotland-based writers following the Snowden revelations and the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act in 2016.

The report also establishes a gap between the awareness of surveillance and its potential impact on free expression and the understanding of ways writers can protect themselves, including the use of Privacy-Enhancing Technologies. If left unaddressed, writers may leave themselves vulnerable to pervasive surveillance through the use of insecure tools and or avoid expressing themselves altogether.

Key findings include:

  • 82% said that if they knew that the UK government had collected data about their Internet activity they would feel as though their personal privacy had been violated;
  • 22% have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic due to the perception of surveillance, with another 17% stating they have seriously considered it (39% total);
  • 28% have curtailed or avoided activities on social media, with another 13% stating they have seriously considered it (41%total);
  • The majority of respondents said that the collection of metadata (39%), collection of content data (62%), hacking platforms, networks or devices (60%), and installing backdoors into encrypted platforms (59%) would make them use the Internet differently;
  • 45% reported that undermining end-to-end encryption would make them use the Internet differently;
  • 20% said they would consider using the Internet and other online tools less frequently and stop using them altogether;
  • 12% said they would engage in self-censorship, becoming less open and truthful and more guarded in what they communicated in their work and what they shared publicly.

Further to this a number of participants when interviewed raised a number of concerns that need to be addressed when ensuring free expression can be protected in the age of big data and digital surveillance.

Respondent Three:

“I think I would avoid direct research on issues to do with Islamic fundamentalism. I might work on aspects of the theory, but not on interviewing people…in the past, I have interviewed people who would be called…‘subversives’.”

Respondent One:

“It should be just as worrying, I think, really, if you end up on a blacklist because you hold views that are not very savoury – unless they are actually inciting to violence and hatred, then of course, obviously, you’re breaking the law – but simply to oppose something without breaking the law shouldn’t make you a target for surveillance, I think.”

Respondent Seven:

“I mean, recently I’ve written a piece that I would have felt uncomfortable writing as a contemporary piece in…this geographic location, but writing it as a historical piece in a different real-world location, if you will, has made it an easier piece to write.”

The decision to avoid certain topics or modify creative processes is directly connected to a writer’s ability to identify new ways of accessing online information. However, when writers are unaware of how to use the internet differently they may continue to use insecure technologies or may step away from the internet as a resource altogether. This was highlighted by a number of participants.

Respondent Five:

“I think probably what worries me, and probably people my kind of age, would be…does our ignorance of what’s technologically possible and what’s unethically being done, legally or illegally but either of it unethically, make us vulnerable, because we just don’t really understand.”

“I think probably I need to get educated a wee bit more by someone…because I think we probably are a bit exposed and a wee bit vulnerable, more than we realise.”

Scottish PEN would like pass on our gratitude to David McMenemy, Dr Lauren Smith, the School of Computer and Information Science at the University of Strathclyde, PEN America for letting us use and adapt their methodology and PEN International who contributed funds to this important report.


Click here for a press release for the report with more detail