What’s worse: the NSA or the East German Stasi?
President Barack Obama is headed off to Germany next week, and while he's there he should expect to get an earful about the National Security Agency surveillance scandals that have been dominating the news in the United States over the past week.
The Germans are scandalized. "Germans so outraged at U.S. over spying that Merkel will raise the issue directly with Obama," says the Washington Post. A leading German data protection official is telling German Internet users to avoid American companies like Facebook and Google, since, he says, all of the data in their networks is likely to be scooped up for use by U.S. intelligence. A German parliamentarian says that the revelations about the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance remind him of the Stasi, the old East German secret police. (Let's leave aside, for the moment, the point that European governments still do plenty of spying of their own, and intrude in the lives of their citizens in ways that many Americans would find repugnant.)
German touchiness on the subject has a lot to do with history. There was that singular unpleasantness with the Gestapo a few years back, of course -- but for all its crimes the Nazi secret police was actually a fairly small organization that depended heavily on a wide net of enthusiastic informers within a broadly regime-loyal population. And then there's the horrifying tale of East Germany's Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit, the Ministry for State Security, known more widely by the abbreviated version of its name -- the Stasi. It was this agency that was responsible for building up what was probably the most expansive surveillance state in history.
Let me say one thing right off: Daniel Ellsberg notwithstanding, the NSA is not the Stasi. The East German secret police, the direct equivalent of the Soviet KGB, viewed itself as the "shield and the sword" of the East German Communist Party -- and that was the only authority to which it bore responsibility. The Stasi was not in business, in other words, to protect East German citizens from threats to their lives or liberty: both of those things were entirely subject to the dictates of the Politburo. The Stasi's job was to keep communism in power. If it failed in that larger aim, it wasn't for want of trying.
By contrast, intelligence agencies in the United States (and in liberal democracies, generally) are supposed to be subject to congressional oversight and a wide range of legal strictures, and so far leaker Edward Snowden has provided little indication that the NSA programs have broken any laws. Indeed, both the PRISM data mining program, as well as the NSA collection of phone metadata, appear to have followed the letter of the law -- and Congress signed off on all of it. Some critics, indeed, are saying that this may be the most disturbing part of the whole story.
Still, there's one aspect of the comparison between the Stasi and the NSA that's illuminating -- and that's the question of technological capability. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the East German state, people around the world were astounded to discover just how thoroughly the Stasi kept track of its charges. It's been estimated that one out of seven East German citizens was a Stasi informer. The Stasi destroyed many documents in the days that followed East Germany's democratic revolution in the fall of 1989, but the papers that are left fill more than 100 miles of shelf space. (The photo above shows a researcher reconstructing a shredded Stasi document -- some 15,000 giant bags of which remain to be puzzled back together.)
The extent to which Stasi agents went to keep tabs on their own population (as well as East Germany's foreign enemies, since the Stasi was also in charge of spying on other countries) still boggles the mind. Husbands spied on wives, and vice versa. In one program, Stasi scientists experimented with capturing smell samples that could be used to track the activities of their sources. The Stasi had secret rooms in every post office in the country where operatives opened mail and inspected packages. Stasi eavesdroppers listened in on countless phone conversations -- and not just at home. "Virtually all West German satellite-based telephone, Telex, fax, and data transmissions were monitored," notes one online history of Cold War intelligence.
(The Stasi collapsed for good, a few months after the fall of the Wall, as I was beginning my career as a foreign correspondent. I had my share of brief run-ins with the organization; I remember in particular a session in early 1989 when East German border guards pulled me out of a line of Western visitors waiting to cross the border back into West Berlin and brought me into a room where a plainclothes officer interrogated me about my friends and activities in the East; he was already surprisingly well-informed. What I remember most vividly was the picture on the wall of the Stasi man's office: a reproduction of Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, a painting that resided in a museum in the East German city of Dresden. It's a painting that implicitly turns the viewer into a voyeur, covertly witnessing a private act of communication. I've never been able to decide whether the irony of putting that image in a Stasi office was intended or unconscious.)
At any rate, to those of us who watched the Stasi's collapse first-hand it was obvious that the organization's technological capabilities never quite managed to live up to its vast ambitions. The Stasi did some pioneering work in invisible ink and even came up with creative methods of using radioactive isotopes to keep track of suspects, but most of its computer equipment was shockingly clunky -- as one might expect from an agency that had to deal with the constraints of an Eastern Bloc economy. Most of its files were recorded on reels of magnetic tape. The Lives of Others, the remarkable film that describes the ethical transformation of a Stasi spy, gives a good idea of how labor-intensive the Stasi's methods were. Technicians had to plant bugs by hand in meticulously planned covert operations. Wiretaps were monitored by human listeners. Out on the street, targets were shadowed by teams of watchers.
The NSA today inhabits a radically different world. In a digital universe, all the snoopers need is access to routers, satellites, and switching equipment -- and that's enough to tap into virtually all the information worth knowing. There are still some secrets that are locked inside people's heads, of course, but even they, it seems, can be increasingly be guessed at, and in some cases reconstructed, by sifting through the digital trails we leave behind. In a remarkable report last year, reporter James Bamford provided a sense of the scale of NSA's routine data collection effort by looking at the 1-million-square foot information warehouse being built by the agency in the Utah desert:
The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails -- parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital "pocket litter." It is, in some measure, the realization of the "total information awareness" program created during the first term of the Bush administration -- an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans' privacy.
This is a beast of a completely different order from the old-school police-state surveillance model embodied by the East German secret police. For all its resources, the Stasi still relied on human agents and human-scaled technologies. Nowadays, as Bamford notes, the U.S. intelligence community thinks in terms of yottabytes (1024 bytes) of data. (A yottabye, Bamford helpfully adds, is "a septillion bytes -- so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.")
In this digital universe, those who would surveil us no longer need spies to do the work. We're the spies. By going about our daily lives we generate huge cascades of data that merely need to be sorted and analyzed. As the NSA phone scandal vividly shows, those who wish to monitor us no longer even need to listen in on our conversations -- the metadata of those conversations are already enough. (If you want to know more about why metadata are so important, just take a look at Josh Keating's article on the academic paper that predicted the NSA scandal.) And need it be said that the flows of internet traffic and phone data have profoundly blurred the distinctions between domestic and foreign communications that were once so crucial to U.S. laws on intelligence?
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which serves as the basis for much of the monitoring that the U.S. intelligence agencies do, was published in 1978, at the height of the old Cold War. Its provisions now seem bizarrely outdated. James B. Rule, recently writing in The New York Times, observes that we are witnessing "a sea change in the kinds of things that the government can monitor in the lives of ordinary citizens." He's right. Can the constitutional constraints designed to protect us from government intrusion into our private lives keep up? I wonder.
So which is worse, the Stasi or the NSA? Definitely the Stasi. East German citizens had no defense whatsoever against its intrusions. American citizens can still exercise control over our own intelligence organizations, which are still bound (or so we are told) by the rule of law. But do we really have the will to restrain them? So far most of us seem eager to give the benefit of a doubt to the spies as long as it's a matter of fighting terrorism. But somehow I can't summon up the same enthusiasm for some of things that my government has been up to behind my back. It's all just a bit too reminiscent of the bad old days.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images