Sunday November 26, 2017

What this Cold War era spy museum taught me about online surveillance

Nora Young in the meeting room in Stasi chief Erich Mielke's offices at the Stasi Museum in Berlin.

Nora Young in the meeting room in Stasi chief Erich Mielke's offices at the Stasi Museum in Berlin.

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By Nora Young

Here at Spark, we've been thinking a lot about data and how much we're revealing about ourselves online.

And this week, that got me thinking about Berlin. Let me explain.

A couple of summers ago, I was lucky enough to go to Berlin on vacation. Amazing city.

As part of the trip, we went to the Stasi Museum. It's in a suitably sober, nondescript building in the former east Berlin neighbourhood that housed their headquarters. The Stasi was the ministry for state security in East Germany. They were notorious for, among other things, the extent of its mass surveillance of the general public.

373 Stasi camera

Miniature camera originally designed for the KGB. Worn concealed behind attached button.

Part of the museum is the office of Erich Mielke, who was the long time minister of state security in East Germany. Like a fossil in amber, it's been preserved as it was. Huge, honey-coloured wood desks, maps hidden behind panels. Rotary dial phones.

373 Stasi offices

Offices of long time Stasi head Erich Mielke

It's like a midcentury-modern Mad Men set, crossed with sinister spy bureaucracy.

373 Stasi office phones

Offices of long time Stasi head Erich Mielke.

And then there's the actual spy equipment. If you didn't know they were real, you'd swear they were from a James Bond movie. There was a tiny camera hidden in a watering can, with a false bottom so you could actually pour water out. Or a hollowed-out living room door stuffed with wiretapping equipment.

373 Stasi watering can camera

Spy camera concealed in a watering can. It features a false bottom so it can be half filled with water.

373 Stasi peephole

Stasi peephole.

But the most compelling part of the exhibit was actually the written narrative detailing the recruitment and growth of the Stasi, in terms of reach, but also in terms of sheer numbers. By the time the Berlin Wall came down, there were just over 90,000 Stasi employees.

The Stasi also relied on a network of informants who spied on the people in their immediate circle. Nearly 200,000 people by the late 80s - a network so extensive that you might be spied on by friends, relatives, neighbours...people in a position to observe you close up. Imagine what that would do to your relationships. How would you ever know if you could trust people?

"He didn't want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning."  - Hubertus Knabe, German historian.

And here's the thing that struck me the most. Using this intimate surveillance, the Stasi didn't just want to know what people were doing. They wanted to know what people were feeling. And thinking. Who might have a tendency to be, say, a dissident. At a TED event in Berlin in 2014, here's how German historian Hubertus Knabe described it:

In nearly every speech, the Stasi minister gave the order to find out who is who...who thinks what. He didn't want to wait until somebody tried to act against the regime. He wanted to know in advance what people were thinking and planning."

373 Stasi living room door

Living room door with built-in wiretap.

So there I was, standing in the middle of this eerie museum, thinking about how the very name Stasi has become synonymous with surveillance.

And I couldn't help but think: it took hundreds of thousands of people, collaborating in a complex network, to get the kind of information we now give up to tech companies. For free. What we're thinking and feeling. Our disposition, our politics, our preferences.

Now, I'm absolutely not suggesting that Google, Facebook et al are the moral or political equivalent of the Stasi.

But, we do live in an era where online surveillance and data privacy are hot-button topics. Social media platforms and search engines can effortlessly harvest the kind of information about us that once took hundreds of thousands of people to do.

It's a lot more sophisticated than a hidden camera in a watering can.