Mass Surveillance Today Leads to Fear, Self Censoring and Loss of Freedom – Just Like with STASI

(Die DEUTSCHE Version ist HIER.)

The following text is a translated version of a the speech which I held at the demonstration against mass surveillance programs like PRISM and to promote whistleblower protection at 19th June 2013 on the occasion of US president Obama visiting Berlin. There is also a YouTube video of my speech. But here you can read it…

ADB Rede Prism Kundgebung “My name is Anke Domscheit-Berg. I was 21 years old when the Wall fell. In November 1989 I stood together with my mum on top of the Berlin Wall right behind the Brandenburg Gate and celebrated freedom with thousands of people. We had been “The People”. We had opposed against confinement, against limited freedom of speech, against surveillance and paternalism. We were the People. We crowded the streets and we defended ourselves. Back then – it is only 24 years ago – we celebrated our victory and felt a limitless freedom.

At the time of the “Wende” – the collapse of the GDR – I was an art student in the south of East Germany. We students had been an “oppositional mob”, as they called those, who were fed up with surveillance and a lack of freedom. Nights after nights, I copied appeals with my typewriter, from groups like the New Forum or other oppositional groups, which popped up at that time. At my student home, letters to me often arrived opened. The STASI did not even bother to cover up their spying. When we heard strange noises at the telephone, we always suspected that the STASI is listening in but surely, sometimes it was just a bad line. But we still minded our choice of words and used a lot of paraphrases. We became masters in a communication which was full of hints and insinuations without becoming too concrete, avoiding bad consequences.

Before we told political jokes, we thought about who could hear us, and how much we trusted those people. And sometimes, we chose to play it safe and refrained from telling the joke. If somebody looked at us a bit too long or apparently suspicious, seemed to stand around without a sensible purpose or was wearing what we found clothes looking suspiciously like STASI clothes, we felt insecure. We became scared, felt us traced or hunted and sometimes, that may well have been the case. But sometimes, these had surely been totally innocent people, which we suspected to work officially or in-officially for the STASI. In my childhood and youth, I had heard a hundred times the sentence: “don’t you ever say these things in school!” or “don’t you ever say that somewhere else, you will risk your neck”. My father had been told to reduce his criticism, since his daughter wanted to study… All these things do something with you. They change you. You censor yourself. You watch yourself.

Thus, the simple knowledge of potential surveillance already limits our freedoms!

At that time, when I typed those appeals or memory protocols of police violence from the time of our revolution in our student dormitory, the first thing I always did when I returned from somewhere was to check my typewriter and my hidden papers. From the manipulated typewriter ribbons I could tell that somebody had been in my room. I received anonymous letters which warned me to be more cautious. I was informed that in my little hometown, several hundreds of kilometers away, unknown men were asking people about me. I had no more privacy. Just like millions of others in East Germany.

This terrible feeling, to live in a fishbowl, I hated it. And this nightmarish feeling – its slowly coming back to me. The more we know about domestic and foreign services spying on us, the more it comes back and it just scares me.

In East Germany, we too had a constitution and it too ensured our Right to Privacy of Correspondence. But nobody in East Germany took our constitution for serious. It was a piece of paper, no value attached, unreal. But now, I live in a democracy in which the constitution actually means something. But nevertheless, more than ever before, there is trend to erode our constitution. To pass other bills which interpret our constitutional rights broader and broader – reducing our right to privacy more and more. Or to simply ignore laws and spy on us without a legal basis, collecting data about us, e.g. because we took part at a demonstration against Nazis. What help is it, to hear years later from a court that the surveillance was illegal, if the data had already been collected?

I have been criticized for comparing today’s surveillance strategies with those of the STASI, but to be honest, the capabilities of the STASI had been kids stuff compared to what is not only possible today but is actually done. A frequent argument of this criticism is that one cannot compare a constitutional democracy with an unjust state. But I don’t compare societal systems as a whole, I compare the violations of privacy. And I can tell that 37 million emails, scanned by a German Intelligence Service (BND) in 2010 – that would have been the wet dream of the STASI.

But do we really want to use methods similar to those used in an unjust state in our democratic system? Should we not differ the most – precisely in this respect?

Another argument, I hear often is the following: “in East Germany, there had been thousands of Informal (STASI) Employees (“IM”), isn’t this far more terrible, if friends, acquaintances, and colleagues spy on you?”. I also hear: “At that time it was about political convictions, today its about child pornography and terrorism, but I have nothing to hide, I don’t break laws, hence, they can all see my data, if it helps a greater cause”.

But how were friends, acquaintances and colleagues turned into an IM? And do we all really have nothing to hide? Do we have nothing in our lives what we don’t want to be public, which just is nobody else’s business? A bit on the side? A sexual preference? A case of drug use at a festival, 20 years ago? A Google search for the next group of Anonymous Alcoholics or the self help group for relatives of HIV patients? Are there no pictures on our hard drives which are embarrassing or simply very private? Of us or of others? I still have to meet somebody who answers all these questions with NO. Because it is human to have secrets and an interest in privacy.

Back to the IMs – what about them? Many IMs did not start to spy because they found it cool to work for a secret service, and not because of particular firm socialist convictions. Many had been blackmailed or lured in with promises. This procedure was extremely successful because the STASI had a close look at potential IMs in advance: What weaknesses or vices do they have? Which passions, desires, and ambitions? What do they dream of and what do they fear? With this utmost private knowledge, the final recruitment was done. They threatened to make private secrets public and known to employers or spouses, they promised rewards and favors which where hard to get otherwise but particularly matched the weaknesses and cravings of these people. Barely one of them had done something illegal. It was their own, innocent private life which was used against them. I find it regretful that so many people gave in and became IMs for the STASI, because without them, the system STASI would not have functioned. But nevertheless, this procedure still today demonstrates how too much knowledge about a human being in the wrong hands provides power over people and this power can always be abused.

Information about us – the more detailed the profile the more – makes us transparent and susceptible to manipulation and blackmailing, and all this, takes away our freedom. It violates our dignity and our privacy and hence basic rights of the German constitution.

We should voice our desire loud and explicit: That we want our constitution to be taken literal. That we do not want a parliament, passing one surveillance law after the other, which later has to be scrapped by the Constitutional Court. That we want higher barriers for the access by governmental authorities to our data and that we want harder sanctions, if those barriers are not respected. That we want more transparency on the capacity and practice of all authorities, collecting data about us!

All this is an issue which we have here, in Germany. The foreign intelligence comes on top. There are so many bureaus, of which I know nothing, which collect and store everything I communicate and write, the pictures I take, my movements and my relationships. With a husband who had worked several years for WikiLeaks, it is not even unlikely that this is actually happening. But I did not break any law. I did nothing wrong. And my husband neither.

It is a fairytale to believe, that those who live in accordance with the legal system don’t have to fear surveillance. Yesterday, Rainer Wendt, the head of a German police union, was on TV and answered the question how viewers could protect themselves against surveillance, with the advise, that they should avoid downloading bomb recipes but instead to download cooking recipes. You should think about the following problem: How will the government ever know who actually did download a bomb recipe and when, without surveying the entire internet traffic – with all cooking recipes, cat videos and nude pics of random naked people?

Never again, I want to live in a surveillance state. That is why I fight for a transparent government but against a transparent citizen. But neither do I want to be spied upon by a foreign agency, because after all it does not matter who spies on me, since any spying violates my privacy. That is why, last weekend, I started a petition at Change.org, which more than 37.000 people have signed in these few days. I want to read out our request:

To Chancellor Angela Merkel

The Brandenburg Gate represents the free Germany. The pictures of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, with thousands of people dancing on the Wall to celebrate the new freedom, became part of the historic memory of the world. It is bitter irony, that at this historic location, Barack Obama will hold his speech: the US president, who more than any other president before him, hunted and punished whistleblowers. And under whose leadership, with programs like PRISM, the most extensive surveillance of the communication and internet usage of US citizens and citizens of other countries, including Germany, was implemented.

It represents a lack of sensitivity, to have a strategist of the global surveillance culture speak at the Brandenburg Gate, which in 1989 became the symbol of the end of a surveillance state.

We request that you use the opportunity to explicitly tell Barack Obama at the Brandenburg Gate that Germany does not tolerate being subject of mass surveillance by programs like PRISM and that the German Government is against a criminal prosecution of PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden.

With kind regards,

37.000 citizens

I hope that Angela Merkel does not ignore these many voices and defends our rights against Barack Obama.

Thank you.”

UPDATE 27.06.2013 – I started a petition at change.org to be delivered to the Presidents of the EU Parliament and the EU Commission, asking for the stop of mass surveillance, better data protection rights in Europe, legal whistleblower protection etc. This petition is now online in english too. Please help get many signatures to put pressure on the EU! Without our loud protest, nothing will ever change! Thanks.

Link: https://www.change.org/petitions/eu-parliament-and-eu-commission-stop-mass-surveillance-protect-our-data-and-our-whistleblowers

3 Thoughts on “Mass Surveillance Today Leads to Fear, Self Censoring and Loss of Freedom – Just Like with STASI

  1. Good thinking. Correct attitude. World is reaching a crisis – fascism or socialism. Fascism is winning by miles

    • AnkeD on Juni 23, 2013 at 11:04 am said:

      I would not use these labels to describe future options for our society but I agree that we face a global crisis. We enter a global surveillance culture and this is scary.

  2. Marc VdB on Dezember 6, 2013 at 3:42 am said:

    I hope Frau Anke will be the next Chancellor of Germany and fix what’s wrong.

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