Nov 12, 2014 · 2 minutes

Americans no longer think it's safe to communicate via social networks, email services, or even landline phones, according to a Pew report on the public's thoughts on the post-Snowden era. Some 81 percent of people feel insecure sharing information on social media sites, and a surprising 31 percent are also wary of landline phones. That's a respectable number of paranoid citizens.

And it's apparently all thanks to the news organizations using Snowden's documents to expose the NSA's surveillance programs. Most people didn't just suddenly come to fear government spying after the sudden realization that they're sharing all kinds of personal information online. Their fear comes from hearing about the surveillance programs in the media, as Pew explains in its report:

Americans’ lack of confidence in core communications channels tracks closely with how much they have heard about government surveillance programs. For five out of the six communications channels we asked about, those who have heard “a lot” about government surveillance are significantly more likely than those who have heard just “a little” or “nothing at all” to consider the method to be “not at all secure” for sharing private information with another trusted person or organization.
Note that Pew isn't saying these people fear that the government might steal information; it's saying that knowing about the government's surveillance capabilities has made people more aware of just how much information they generate every time they use a computer or phone.

This demonstrates the importance Snowden's whistleblowing has outside attempts to rein in government surveillance. His decision also provided mainstream journalists the reasons they needed to learn about the amount of data collected by private companies, how that data is sent, and how the government's spying efforts rely on the proliferation of modern tools and services.

How many people were talking about the amount of metadata Facebook gathers every time one of its users posts a status update before Snowden's disclosures? Even if the answer was greater than zero, how many people were actually listening when someone talked about "metadata" and "data" and the unbelievable amounts of information traveling via every Internet connection?

Snowden gets a lot of attention for blowing the whistle on the NSA's programs -- as he should -- but saying that his disclosures led only to increased scrutiny of the United States government is a disservice to all the people who are more technically literate than they were just a while ago. That might not have been his intention (Snowden has said in the past that Twitter doesn't put warheads on foreheads, like the government does, in response to private company scrutiny.)

Pew's report makes it clear that Americans don't know what to do about these surveillance efforts even after they've been disclosed, but that's not important. What's important is that people finally care about their privacy, at least a little bit, and that they're better informed about the information gathered both by Washington and all the companies in Surveillance Valley.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]