A Window Into a Surveillance State

I recently read Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Several years after the wall was torn down, Funder went to Germany to talk to people who had lived in the East German state, known formally as the GDR (German Democratic Republic). For her book, she interviewed victims and agents of the Stasi, and explored not only what their life was like back then, but how it changed once the wall fell.

The Stasi, or secret police, enacted a pervasive and powerful surveillance system. They amassed copious amounts of information on private citizens, including all kinds of mundane details. They collected information in a variety of ways, from intercepting mail to using informants.

When reading about the effects of the Stasi’s tactics, I started thinking about the surveillance we live under with the Internet, with cameras everywhere, with data harvested by governments and powerful corporations, with various algorithms making decisions about our lives, and with people eager to be informants and judges. I’m not claiming that my life in the U.S. is like living in the East German state. But it’s important to think about what Stasiland shows us, the dangers we face in a state of exposure and surveillance, including:

The pressure to stick to accepted narratives

In the GDR, people were required “to acknowledge an assortment of fictions as fact.” There were official narratives and explanations (including rapid revisions of history), and you faced serious consequences for expressing different thoughts. The consequences weren’t always obvious and extreme, such as torture sessions. They also included social ruin and getting blacklisted in your industry, making it difficult or impossible to find a good job.

How did people respond?

Many people withdrew into what they called ‘internal emigration’. They sheltered their secret inner lives in an attempt to keep something of themselves from the authorities.

The pressure to express only the accepted truths affected journalists as well. They were mere spokespeople for those in power. The wider populace didn’t trust the press. But because they realized that so much was censored, they knew to try to read between the lines and not take an official account at face value.

The erosion of privacy

In the book, one victim of the Stasi said, “I know how far people will transgress over your boundaries – until you have no private sphere left at all.” It’s damaging to know how far people can go, without care for your dignity and safety. Also, anything can be used against you. Even innocuous details can be given a sinister cast or get presented as proof that you lack loyalty to the people who have power over you.

The lack of transparency

In Stasiland, some of the people the author interviewed were deemed problematic by the state. Interrogation, torture, and imprisonment were potential consequences for being named an enemy of the GDR. Other consequences included heightened surveillance and the sense that barriers were springing up all around you – barriers to jobs, to travel, maybe even to your choice of romantic partner.

There was no one to appeal to. You couldn’t go up to some government agent and demand a fair hearing. You didn’t always know what you had done or how the state was working against you. The deciding forces against you weren’t transparent, for the most part. And the state’s definition of enemy kept broadening. Their definition of “harm” expanded to include small, innocent, even ridiculous acts.

What now?

The dangers described in this post aren’t in history’s dustbin. They’re around us now, in new forms. I’m not allowing myself to be optimistic about the coming decades, with the level of surveillance we already live under and the way governments and other powerful entities already make use of personal data. Not to mention the tendencies in people to inform on others, to cheer on disproportionate punishments, to delight in a “problematic” person’s destruction.

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