Study: people will risk getting shot to replace everyday safety with privacy

Posted on Aug 5, 2016 by Rick Falkvinge
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Once upon a time, a population with homogeneous culture and language was divided into two halves. One half got almost-perfect safety, full employment and living wages, while the other half got rampant terrorism, runaway unemployment, stark inequality, and decent privacy. People would risk their lives to move from the half with jobs and safety to the half with privacy and terrorism, even when the government with jobs and safety started murdering those who tried to move to the other half.

The problem with arguing about social values is that we rarely have a scientific basis for our opinions; all “what-if” scenarios have to stay as thought experiments. When we say that people probably prefer a society with rampant unemployment, terrorism, and privacy to one with near-perfect equality, safety, and living wages for all, it’s hard to justify the juxtaposition as fair and scientific, when people living in so different countries will typically be far enough apart on the globe to have wildly different cultures and preferences to begin with.

In scientific terms, we don’t have a fair control group to compare to.

What we need is a thought experiment where we take an existing country somewhere which is reasonably homogeneous and carries a decent living standard – say, a country like Japan, Canada, or Switzerland – and divide it straight across, into two parts named North Experimentia and South Experimentia. There isn’t actually a country like this, so we’ll have to settle for splitting the fictitious country of Experimentia here.

In North Experimentia, people get everything material they could want, all the things politicians have been talking about in every campaign for the last 100 years: full employment, living wages, near-perfect equality, and above all, safety from every conceivable evil. Everybody has literally more money than they know how to spend.

In contrast, in South Experimentia, there are carnage brutal terrorists (the organized kind that kill people at random, not peaceful protesters), the worst unemployment in 30 years, but they do have the one thing politicians have neglected the past century: privacy.

Given this division, and assuming people could move between North and South Experimentia, which way would the U-Hauls go? Most politicians (and frankly, most political people online) would assume people would move to guaranteed wages and safety, but they would be wrong.

We know they’re wrong because this country existed. We know people moved away from jobs and safety into privacy and terrorism, and did so in droves.

Even moreso, people didn’t just move away from safety and to privacy while they were allowed to. They continued doing so even after they would get shot for doing so if discovered.

This country was Germany, and it was divided into West Germany and East Germany, which carried these characteristics imposed on an otherwise homogeneous population. And even after the Berlin Wall was erected to slow the mass exodus, people would frequently get shot trying to move from East Germany into West Germany.

People want privacy over safety to the degree where they’re prepared to die for it. This is not just a study, it’s a historic fact. So why are our governments today doing the exact opposite, even as we celebrate the 25th year of ending this brutal experiment and reuniting Germany?

Now, it’s arguable that it wasn’t just the privacy and liberty that caused people to want to move from East Germany to West Germany. That argument doesn’t matter, as all other effects – material wealth, entrepreneurship, subcultures, music – were a result of having privacy in the first place. (Yes, even entrepreneurship: lacking privacy, you’re not allowed to deviate and do better.) Therefore, all the differences between these two halves come back to this simple observation: people will risk dying to trade their safety for privacy and other liberty.

Never believe a politician who says safety is preferable to privacy. Remember West and East Germany.

Privacy remains your own responsibility.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.

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  1. Doesnt_Matter

    (West) German here. I was in my teens when the iron curtain came down.

    As compelling as the argument sounds, it is quite flawed:

    * The BRD at that time wasn’t a place of rampant terrorism. There was the RAF, but they specifically targeted politicians, business leaders and foreign soldiers. They were no direct threat to the general populous.
    * The GDR had their crime problems as well. However, their media was censored by the government and crime did not match it’s self-perception. Hence, crime reports never made the news.
    * Border patrols and the STASI were the result, not the cause of people fleeing the GDR. Both were “necessary” because the GDR was heading towards a major crisis due to loosing large parts of its work force.
    * Inequality was a problem in both the east and the west. In the GDR, the government had a large say in what your career options were and your options were limited if you are your family had the wrong political opinions.
    * The STASI was “everywhere” because they recruited the average joe to spy on his neighbors and/or family. Being an informant wasn’t a real job. You usually were neither trained nor paid for it. You were just given an assignment to observe someone and create regular reports on the targets activities (privacy invasion then was the natural result of having to find something to write about. And most reports ended up being lists of banalities just to fill the paper). You did this for a mixture of reasons among them being patriotism, stupidity, career opportunities or because “the system” already had dirt on you. The general population was well aware of this and people mistrusted each other since the STASI had the power to send anyone to prison for dissenting political opinions. In short: it actually was the GDR that had the terrorism problem.
    * Freedom was certainly a motivator for fleeing the GDR, but it was one of many. Others were being reunited with families (when you fled the GDR, the STASI would take it out on your remaining family. So if a close relative had fled you could choose between heavier monitoring or fleeing yourself) or the siren song of capitalism. We in the BRD had the better music, the cooler clothing and more choices when buying cars.
    * Speaking of cars. The GDR had one model only, the “Trabant”. The thing was groundbreaking on launch, but not developed further afterwards. Managed economy does not reward innovation and hence few things ever moved beyond version 1.0. If you wanted a car in the GDR, you had to preorder, wait several years and then take whatever color was available (unless you were a politician – they all drove west cars – so much for equality).
    * In the GDR you were guaranteed a job. Stupid thing though, there usually wasn’t much you could buy with the money you earned. So in a sense, you worked for free. Job security wasn’t really a reason to stay in the GDR

    4 years ago
  2. walalaaaa

    That’s interesting but I’m not convinced people had safety in East Berlin. There was the risk of being sent to Stasi prison for example.

    4 years ago
    1. Falkvinge

      Politically, that’s part of “safety” – meaning swift and effective eradication of all crime.

      Now, the definition of a “crime” varies between jurisdictions, and in East Germany, it was indeed a crime to have privacy and freedom of speech. (But as long as you didn’t want privacy or political freedom, or committed other crimes, you were remarkably safe.)

      That people were willing – indeed dying – to trade this safety of freedom from crime against actual privacy and liberty is the point I’m making.

      4 years ago
      1. Markonius

        The people in East Germany were perfectly safe from the threat of prison as long as they obeyed the law. In this country the safety of criminals from being imprisoned isn’t taken into consideration when talking about security. You would say “Don’t commit a crime if you don’t want to go to jail”. Even though the criminals face the threat of prison, every culture considers the swift and effective punishment or imprisonment of criminals to be a factor of safety/security, the state keeping the public safe from criminals. East Germany was very safe if you obeyed the law, but as history shows people preferred privacy even if it put them at risk. I’d like to link to this post on my blog if that’s ok?

        4 years ago
        1. Falkvinge

          East Germany was very safe if you obeyed the law, but as history shows people preferred privacy even if it put them at risk.


          I’d like to link to this post on my blog if that’s ok?

          Yes, of course. You never need ask permission to link. In addition, the whole blog is under CC-BY-SA; you can also copy freely as long as you credit the source and others may copy in turn.

          4 years ago