What Happens When Your Phone, Your Desk, And Your Walls Are The Informants?
In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. In 1990, Germany was re-unified. In 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. The net effect of this is that nobody younger than about 25 years of age today – the people who take the net for absolutely granted, just as all of us take cars for granted today – has any personal memory of the unspeakable abuses of a European surveillance state, and what happens when it starts flexing its muscles. But today, the technology that these people use is the technology that is used against them on a 24-by-7 basis.
We frequently make comparisons to the East German Stasi with regards to the surveillance state being rolled out – despite the comparison coming short in two important aspects. First, the surveillance now is mind-bogglingly more far-reaching than the East German Stasi ever managed to accomplish. The Stasi was the dreaded secret police of East Germany who had a file on everybody, and who would disappear inconvenient people and pressure the rest. Second, today’s surveillance is much more covert – it has not (yet) started using everything it knows about ordinary people against those ordinary people.
(There’s an excellent movie called Das Leben Der Anderen, The Lives Of Others, that gives an insight into the chilling psyche of the surveillance bureaucrats and operatives of the time.)
The surveillance states of Eastern Europe in general, and East Germany in particular, didn’t just open letters and wiretap phonecalls at random. As it wasn’t possible to open all letters and wiretap every phonecall, there was a widespread network of civilian informants among the population – people who had been recruited, often under threat or blackmail. It wasn’t just one or two – records show that the informants numbered 174,000, or one in forty people. In effect, this meant that informants were everywhere – it’s easy to consider a typical day and see that in any place with more than 40 people, there’s statistically at least one person who will report anything suspicious to an agency that makes suspicious people go away.
The “go away” part was very real. Often, people would know of at least some of the informants. Children who were brought up in this environment were under strict orders from their parents to never talk to children of informants, neither at school nor elsewhere, because if they would say one wrong word to that kid, their father would disappear in the night. It wasn’t a very nice society.
People were avoiding any contact with the informants.
This was a very effective way of maintaining a tyrannical society. It didn’t stop resentment growing, but it stopped a movement growing. If somebody close to you expressed thoughts that could make somebody disappear, there was the possibility that a third person would overhear the conversation and you’d both go away. There was also the possibility they were an agent provocateur, somebody who would see if you agreed. In this way, the climate of fear effectively isolated anybody trying to build a countermovement.
This culture of fear could also be a direct cause of the economic collapse of Eastern Europe, as it fostered a climate of staying part of the gray mass rather than sticking out of the crowd. Anybody who could do better – read, entrepreneurs – were, well, culled.
Today, there aren’t people around us who spy on us on behalf of the government. Instead, our own devices do that for the government, and they do so constantly, all the time, wherever we carry them. When people wanted to speak in private in East Germany, they would go outside and speak while walking. When we want to talk in private today, we also go outside, and importantly, we leave all our electronics behind. (Not everybody does this, yet, but the security-conscious among us do.)
In East Germany, informants were your friends. What happens to the climate in society when your phone, your desk, and your walls are the informants?
In the book and movie 1984, there was the infamous telescreen which enabled governments to look into anybody’s home. (We have those now, by the way.) In this scene, we also see the protagonist hide out of sight of the surveillance camera to have a few, coveted private moments. That’s effectively where we are now.
What’s that going to do to our future? How are you going to avoid your phone, your desk, and your walls, and still have something that resembles a social and meaningful life?
Oh, and as a final note: The name Stasi was an abbreviation for Ministerium for Staatssicherheit. It translates literally to Ministry for State Security, but seeing how more modern words are used today in the steads of “ministry” (a place where governmental people work) and “state” (country), a more accurate modern translation would be National Security Agency.