I grew up in Western Europe in the 1980s. My teenage years were characterized by the Cold War between the United States and the now-collapsed Soviet Union. We learned that the West was liberty, and that the East was oppression. Presumably, the East learned the reverse in their corresponding teenage years. But when did the West become the enemy they painted?
It’s hard to communicate how everpresent the threat of nuclear war was. Basically, you could say that us who grew up in the 1980s didn’t expect to grow old. In this time of polarization and belligerence, identifying with your home team was more important than ever. In retrospect, it was a false sense of liberty that we were given – mass surveillance started with ECHELON and similar programs in the mid-1970s – but it was nevertheless a very strong sense of liberty.
So the one thing that remained strong with us through this threat of nuclear war and total annihilation was our sense of identity. We were not them. And them, they were the ones who distrusted their own citizens. Who read their mail. Who listened to their phonecalls. The Eastern Bloc. And this behavior was especially personified by the East German Stasi, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, and to some extent, by the Soviet KGB.
One thing that strikes you is the enormous cost of the surveillance machine of the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s and -80s. It has been estimated that half a million people worked directly or indirectly for the Stasi, and this was in East Germany, which had 16 million people. In other words, about 1 in 15 people of working age were working just with this branch of the internal surveillance. The cost to the national economy of upholding such an internal monster must have been positively enormous, by any measure.
In contrast, when you talk to surveillance hawks today, many of them bring out the argument that all of this technology is available, and that those who don’t have anything to hide don’t have anything to fear. (Which is a thoroughly dishonest argument on its own.) They tend to tell you that all of our call records and communications logs are stored temporarily anyway, so why should they not be available to national security and law enforcement? The underlying logic here is chilling: “it’s cheap, so therefore, we should be doing this”.
All through my teenage years, I was taught that liberty and privacy were matters of principle. And now these vital liberties are getting scrapped unceremoniously the instant it is cheap enough to do so? Was it never a matter of liberty, just a matter of price?
Privacy remains your own responsibility.
PS: The translation of the name of the Stasi, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, would be National Security Agency.