A thought on the surveillance leaks

Did Eastern Germans protest and revolt against the leadership of the DDR because they were sick of the state’s total surveillance and control, or because they desired higher income and material consumption? Despite the popular narrative, I really do believe the latter is what motivated the masses. But that’s because I have a cynical outlook.

The narrative is probably right too. Average citizens would never have dared to protest without a solid number of idealists leading by example and providing moral justification.

For those idealists, the recent leaks regarding Western state security services’ mass monitoring capabilities must have had a particularly nasty taste. Imagine risking your life, throwing yourself into the arms of the Free West only to discover that the West does the surveillance thing too.

Total, cradle-to-grave state control? No. But total surveillance? Absolutely. At first glance that isn’t completely true: there are laws putting strict limits on the surveillance of conventional communications media like mail in envelopes and telephone calls. Unfettered surveillance is limited to newfangled network-based communications. But if you think about it, the new media provide much more complete, more unfiltered insight into people’s lives than phone calls or letters. People write letters expecting they’ll be read (if only by the intended recipient). They don’t have that on their mind when they enter search terms, and in fact I think people do have an expectation of privacy when they do their online research (“breast cancer”? “alcoholics anonymous”? “gambling support group”?). The same goes for documents or for calendar appointments stored on the web. All of this stuff is replacing the old, protected methods of communication.

Probably the main reason the Stasi went to the trouble to install bugs and wiretaps was to catch information their victim’s wouldn’t have put in a letter (even assuming it wouldn’t be opened). Tapping the cloud delivers an awful lot of that stuff, from many areas of life. So the type of unregulated access our security services have claimed for themselves in absence of existing regulation is actually pretty disturbing. I think it’s more problematic than a phone wiretap, and almost as intrusive as the surveillance of Eastern Germany.

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