Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Lives of Others - Reflections on the Stasi

This is an appropriate time to watch the 2006 Foreign-Language Oscar winner The Lives of Others, set in 1984 in East Berlin. We now know that the Stasi, the East German secret police, had files on hundreds of thousands of citizens. Human weaknesses were levers to pry open the secret compartments of hearts and thoughts, with the aim of preserving a system which could only survive under conditions of universal mistrust.

Following the information released by Edward Snowden, we should take careful note of what our government is doing today. "Oh, we're just looking for patterns," the NSA assures us. "We're not actually listening to individual conversations or reading personal emails, unless we have a warrant first." Of course, you'll have to take their word for that, since FISA has locked the surveillance process in Catch-22 layers of secrecy. They won't tell you they've been requesting records of yours unless you happen to ask, but those under surveillance have no right to know they are. So no, you're not going to find out. These days, you can't even catch someone red-handed going through your mail or tapping your phone - it's all done remotely.

If we have to take their word for what they're collecting and keeping and what just runs through their filters, the open society our founders sought to create and sustain, is dead. Trust flourishes in the open. A look at The Lives of Others reveals how even love cannot protect lovers from the state, from each other's vulnerabilities.

The East German government was pretty sure it was protecting its citizens from harm, from all those troublesome thoughts and activities that were corrupting the West. The film's writer protagonist was shocked to be told, after the Berlin Wall had come down, that he had indeed been under full surveillance - he imagined that because he was careful, because he self-censored his work to stay out of prison, he was above suspicion. But the former minister who punctured that illusion did so with the only satisfaction he had left: smugness regarding the extent of the spy-state over which he had presided so long. No one was above suspicion, not even the apparatchiks who did the prying and spying.

The film ends on a note of gratitude and nobility, a bow to the courage and humanity of the spy who saved the writer. But as we refine the technology of snooping, can we hope for such weak spots? The new NSA data center in Utah, 1.5 million square feet, will have a capacity of a yottabyte of data - the equivalent of 500 quintillion pages of text. Why? For whom? If they're just filtering, why do they need so much storage? Your service providers at the phone companies (all of them), Google, Yahoo, Facebook, etc. have already declared they have provided no access and no data to the NSA. Do you believe them?

Our prosperity has greatly simplified the task of spying on us. Phones equipped with GPS aren't only handy for you: they're a boon to the snoops. Just a decade ago, the military didn't want publicly-available GPS units to be as accurate as theirs: they considered them security risks. But now, the secret-collectors must be high-fiving each other over the increased accuracy of the devices: your activities can be tracked precisely. Which plane were you on, what book did you download (or check out of the library, for that matter), which friends do you hang out with? Where do you shop, what do you buy, who's in your contact list? They know more about you than your mom ever did, but there's no reason for them to be indulgent: the NSA is not the home of unconditional love.

The fall of the Berlin Wall isn't going to save us this time - we have to speak up, loud, often, and in large numbers: this massive data collection is only making us "safer" in a limited sense. Over the long term, we will be at the whim of a state the Stasi could only dream of.

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