The most annoying thing many people say shrugging their shoulders and putting their heads in the sand about the ever growing cancer of the surveillance state is that they have nothing to fear and nothing to hide. Who would possibly be interested in their Google searches (no bomb making enquiries) or internet porn consumption (all models over 18) and all other digital traces and metadata.
An excellent piece by Carole Cadwalladre in the Observer 9/11/14 should make them think again.
She describes the phenomenon that a growing community of surveillance refuseniks have chosen Berlin as the refuge of choice for those hounded by the security services because of the strict privacy laws in Germany.
This is of course no coincidence. Germany and foremost Berlin have the most frightening and recent experiences of totalitarian surveillance states. The Gestapo of the Nazi era and the Stasi of the former East Germany are fresh in peoples minds.
However the presence is not less frightening. There is documentary maker Laura Poitras an US citizen living in Berlin, who made the recent documentary film Citizenfour about Edward Snowden and whom Snowden first contacted before he blew the whistle on the mostly illegal, unconstitutional mass surveillance of American citizens by their own security service NSA .
In 2006, after making two films about the US war on terror, she found herself on a “watch list”. Every time she entered the US – “and I travel a lot” – she would be questioned. “It got to the point where my plane would land and they would do what’s called a hard stand, where they dispatch agents to the plane and make everyone show their passport and then I would be escorted to a room where they would question me and oftentimes take all my electronics, my notes, my credit cards, my computer, my camera, all that stuff.” She needed somewhere else to go, somewhere she hoped would be a safe haven. And that somewhere was Berlin.
And if you think the collection of “just” metadata is not so bad think again. The danger is already manifest.
A political scientist who’s now a researcher on the German NSA inquiry, tells perhaps the most chilling story. How she and her husband and their two children – then aged two and four – were caught in a “data mesh”. How an algorithm identified her husband, an academic sociologist who specialises in issues such as gentrification, as a terrorist suspect on the basis of seven words he’d used in various academic papers.
Seven words? “Identification was one. Framework was another. Marxist-Leninist was another, but you know he’s a sociologist… ” It was enough for them to be placed under surveillance for a year. And then, at dawn, one day in 2007, armed police burst into their Berlin home and arrested him on suspicion of carrying out terrorist attacks.
But what was the evidence, I say? And Roth tells me. “It was his metadata. It was who he called. It was the fact that he was a political activist. That he used encryption techniques – this was seen as highly suspicious. That sometimes he would go out and not take his cellphone with him… ”
He was freed three weeks later after an international outcry, but the episode has left its marks. “Even in the bathroom, I’d be wondering: is there a camera in here?”
The difference between democratic and authoritarian surveillance states used to be that under democratic rules surveillance is focused on criminals while under an authoritarian system the surveillance encompasses everyone.
“The minister of the Stasi always said, ‘We have to answer the question, who is who?’ Those were his words. That means, who thinks what? It used to be an obvious fundamental difference between a democratic state and a dictatorial one that innocent people are not surveilled.
Not any more. The philosophy of the secret services in western democracies is the same as the Stasi’s and the Gestapo’s. Collect as much data as you can, create records, which might be useful at a future date. The most chilling example how technology and data can become dangerous is documented in the book IBM and the Holocaust. Now it is western democratic states installing the tools of authoritarian dictatorships.
All information can be used against you in some way. And we have an entire generation, the first one ever, about whom everything will be known. Their entire youth is being monitored. And we don’t know what that might mean. How that might be used against them.
And, if you think it doesn’t matter, go to Berlin. Go to the Stasi museum. See how it all panned out last time around.
Be afraid, be very afraid !
And that is exactly what the governments want you to be. Be afraid of terrorists, pedophiles, criminals, muslims, foreigners and forget the real enemy.
In the country, which had experiences with authoritarian dictatorships there is suspicion of authority encoded into their DNA. When it comes to intelligence services we have no legitimate means of knowing anything about what they’re doing. However no one should assume that they’re the good guys.