On suspicion

Nothing about archaeology today, nothing about things that happened centuries or millennia ago. Today I want to write something about the not-so-distant past and, more importantly, about the present.

Back then

Almost 24 years ago, in summer 1989, I was hitch-hiking in the southern part of the German Democratic Republic. Towards the evening, somebody gave be a ride to the nearest town. He stopped in front of the police station and asked me to wait in the car. He came back with two or three policemen who told me to come with them into the building. I was then interrogated for the simple reason that I was in a region close to the border with the Federal Republic of Germany. That was enough to raise suspicion. I then had to wait for some time while they checked my passport and, presumably, requested information on me from elsewhere. I then had to go with a plainclothes officer to a different building. The pictures on the walls in the hallway showed faces that I knew from my East German history books. I’m not sure whether Stalin or Dzerzhinsky were among them, but it was very much the old school, and I was immediately sure that this was the local establishment of the Ministry for State Security. In a plain office, I was again interrogated regarding my reasons for being in an area so close to the border, my travel destination and so on. A protocol was typed (on a good old mechanical typewriter, not a computer), I had to sign it and then, much to my surprise, the officer drove me to the nearest youth hostel.

I had been held up for more than two hours based on a vague suspicion entertained by an informant of an intelligence agency. What would have happened if I had at some point said something stupid, if I had given a wrong answer? My political activities in the two years before that incident were certainly on file somewhere – what if some of that had provoked more suspicion? And what if they had decided to lock me up for a few days or longer? Nothing I could have done about it. I certainly felt that I had been lucky.

Fast forward

This is more than half my life ago now. Fast forward to 2013. The German Democratic Republic and the Ministry for State Security are no more. We live in free and democratic societies, or so we are told. And suddenly, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that both the USA and the UK have set up extensive systems to intercept internet and phone communication on an unprecedented scale: Prism, Boundless Informant and Tempora. What we now know about these systems goes beyond much of what we would have placed into the realm of conspiracy theories only a few weeks earlier: In Germany alone, the NSA is intercepting 500 Million emails and phone callseach month. Interestingly, the outrage is still limited but appears to be growing as more details become public. Still, much of the world seems to be more concerned with the “where is Edward Snowden” game than with the implications of Prism, Boundless Informant and Tempora for freedom and democracy.

One of my first thoughts on this was a quote from Douglas AdamsLife, the Universe and Everything, when Arthur Dent is told by not-so-friendly-looking neon letters:

Do not be alarmed. Be very, very frightened.

Nothing to hide?

Not that I panicked, really. But having grown up in East Germany has taught me a few lessons. It’s an unpleasant déjà vu. Then and now, a common response to surveillance was and is: I’ve got nothing to hide. Really? Well, I do. You don’t mind that your personal and business e-mails go CC to several intelligence agencies in your own country and abroad? Including business deals, private photographs etc.? You don’t mind some unknown person reading what you write to your lover or about your boss or about politics? It doesn’t matter to you that you don’t have any legal means to ever find out what they do and how they do it? It doesn’t matter to you that, if for some reason you attract their suspicion, you have no legal means to prove that they are wrong – because all this is done in secrecy, by your own country and by your own countries allies? And even if you still think that you haven’t got anything to hide: do you think that it is anybody’s business that you’ve got nothing to hide?

With the best intentions?

Well, yes, we are told that all this is done for our security, that it’s part of the fight againsst terrorism. I’ve heard that plot before. Back in East Germany, the Stasi did all their secret work for the best of us all, didn’t they? They protected us from infiltration from the “evil” west, right? I don’t buy such stories any more, because there is no way to double-check with intelligence agencies. It’s not like in science or in court where every single step that leads to a conclusion has to be traceable and documented. Everything is done in secret, and we are supposed to believe the result.

As for terrorism: Terrorism is politically motivated murder. Murder is a crime, and crime is the domain of democratically controlled and accountable police forces, not of intelligence agencies. If there are people who have become so fanatic that they don’t care about their own lives anymore, there is no way to stop them – fanatics will find ways to inflict damage on our societies no matter how many of our rights and freedoms we give up to fight against them, no matter how much power we hand over to intelligence agencies. Does that mean that we should just accept terror? Not at all. But the only effective way to stop it is to abandon politics and policies that fill people with hate: apalling social inequality (both locally and globally), injustice and oppression. And perhaps most importantly, the (real or perceived) impression that peaceful change is impossible.

And besides this: does anybody really believe that the Germany or the European Union (whose embassies in Washington and at the UN headquarters in New York have been NSA targets) are terror organisations? Suddenly we realise tha the NSA sees Europe not as a partner but rather as a somewhat cooperative enemy.

From the virtual to the real

There are still many who belive that there is a fundamental difference between the so-called virtual world of the internet and the so-called real physical world. One could find many arguments against this dichotomy, but I don’t want to go into this. For the question at hand it doesn’t matter if this dichotomy exists or not.

In terms of civil rights, the existence of systems such as Prism entails that we are losing our right to privacy, our right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, our right to remain silent and a few more. A boundless intelligence system thus undermines the very foundations of our free and democratic societies.

Now, it would indeed be scary if we really were to give up our privacy, if we were to accept that we are all under suspicion. What’s much worse is that it doesn’t stop there. Our emails and chats and phone calls and so on are not just stored and analysed. All this is not just about virtual space, because collecting these data is not an end in itself. Our communication is a huge source of suspicions, and these suspicions will have real-world consequences.

At the lower levels of real-world consequences, suspicions of intelligence agencies can lead to denial of entry into a country, to the influencing of public opinion, to the infiltration of groups of people and to attempts to disintegrate friendships, families and organisations, both back then in East Germany and today in democtatic western societies.

But the suspicions of the intelligence agencies can, for example, also lead to detainment in a secret prison or in Guantánamo as in the case of the Turkish citizen and German legal resident Murat Kurnaz who was held captive in Guantánamo for five years on groundless accusations, without trial and without any legal means. Guantánamo really is a case in point: the explicit reason why the inmates are held captive there without trial is that there is no proof that they are terrorists. They have been held captive, many of them tortured, solely on suspicion.

Even more dire are the consequences of the intelligence agencies’ suspicions if you happen to live in a country such as Pakistan or Jemen: In Pakistan alone, more than 2000 people have been killed by U.S. drones – on suspicion. And you can’t capitulate to a drone, you can’t say, hey, wait a minute, I’m not the guy you’re looking for. Remember, the most powerful democratic country is killing people who have not been found guilty by a jury, who have not had a chance to appeal or to prove that they are innocent. And do these killings make the world a better or even safer place? I don’t think so. On the contrary, these killings and in particular the collateral deaths of civilians (sic – this implies that the alleged terrorists were not civilians) contribute to the hatred against the USA in particular and “the west” in general. Breeding terrorism by choosing a particular way of fighting against alleged terrorists? For the increasingly privatised US intelligence and security sector this is just as well: it ensures that there will be good business in the years to come.

You may say, yes, but all that is far away or a few false positives have to be accepted for the security of our societies. But it is very easy to attract suspicion, and if you look through your emails you may find that all those irrelevant messages can indeed be read in a way than makes them appear very suspicious.

Lullaby politics

How do democratic countries, our elected parliaments and governments, our free and democratic societies deal with this? Yes, there is quite a bit of media attention. Yes, there is a bit of outrage. But for the most part, we are witnessing a complete and utter failure of many of our democratic institutions. Not only in the USA and in the UK where the infamous spy programmes were set up, but also in countries such as Germany. In Germany, there is a long tradition of calling anyone critical towards U.S. policies anti-american – the USA are seen by much of the politcial establishment and the media as a beacon of freedom and democracy which should not be criticised. Accordingly, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s presidentJoachim Gauck – both grew up in the German Democratic Republic and should really know better – uttered only meek statements. They might as well sing lullabies.

What world do you want to live in?

More than the financial crisis of the past years, more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disclosed programmes of intelligence agencies in the “free and democratic” countries beg the question: what world do you want to live in? If you take a look at the files amassed by East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, you can see the results of a surveillance system that – largely lacking computers – appears almost laughable in comparison to today’s systems. If we (or, for that matter, Angela Merkel or Joachim Gauck) had one thing to learn from that, it is this: If we are not free in our communication, we are not free in our thinking. If we are not free in our thinking, we are not free in our actions.

Edward Snowden told the Guardian:

I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.
That is not something I am willing to support or live under.