The DDR, Surveilance, and Informational Self-Determination
On Saturday, I went to see the DDR Museum in Berlin (a terrible example of an historical abbreviation striking mental miscues). I had originally been planning on seeing the Deutsches Technikmuseum instead, but it occurred to me that I’ve seen a couple other technical museums on this trip (most notably in Zagreb). While the one in Berlin is reportedly very nice, it probably doesn’t offer anything unique. The DDR Museum, on the other hand, is the only one of its kind and explores a subject particular to East Germany.
The museum, for its part, turned out to be pretty interesting. So many museums are focused on “important” things: epoch-shaping wars, timeless art, science−it was cool to see one devoted simply to daily life in the DDR. The tone of the museum reminded me a little bit of the charming comedy Good Bye, Lenin, a sort of bemused appreciation for communist kitsch, but with recognition of the negative aspects as well. I learned a bunch of things I never knew about East Germany.
The subordinating of all concerns to needs of the socialist state led to odd results at times. For example, in some ways, official policy was surprisingly progressive towards women, who were expected to be full equals in education and the workforce. Generous maternity leave and childcare provisions were also in place, to encourage the production of future workers. But within the interpersonal sphere, women were expected to retain their traditional roles, to defer to their male peers, to come home from the factory and cook. It was like bizzaro-feminism: workplace equality entirely divorced from social equity.
Similarly, DDR policy on sex education was fairly realistic, in contrast to the West at that time. Birth control was widely available (and state subsidized), and premarital sex was not officially discouraged. Perhaps the authorities figured that even with contraceptives, they’d still get some extra workers out of the deal. Or maybe it was a tactic designed to appeal to young Germans and decrease the attraction of competing institutions like, say, the church (“Try Communism! The hot new ideology with more sex!”). Heck, maybe they just didn’t want all their workers down for the count with STDs.
Of course, no historical examination of the DDR would be complete without reference to the nearly omnipresent surveillance carried out by the Stasi. When I was in Berlin a couple years ago, I visited the Stasimuseum which is actually located in their former headquarters. It was interesting to see, but the Stasimuseum is very much a research institution and a document repository for all the secret police files seized during the fall of communism in East Germany; much of the information was only in German. In contrast, the DDR Museum had bilingual exhibits and was generally designed to be more accessible to the general public.
One thing that surprised me was the sheer scale of the Stasi operation. By the time the DDR collapsed in 1989, the Stasi employed around 91,000 people and collected reports from an additional 300,000 informants. In a nation of only about 16 million, that means that roughly 2.5% of the population was either working for the Stasi or reporting to them, which I find pretty staggering.
In addition to using their human agents and informants, the Stasi were proficient with the most advanced intelligence-gathering technologies of the time. In the above photo, the black border around the corners of the photo displayed on the screen indicates it was shot with a camera concealed in a briefcase! Bow-tie cameras, cigarette box tape-recorders, phone bugs, it’s all the stuff of spy film legend—except the Stasi were the ones doing it for real, the ones the screenwriters were ripping off.
Download @25C3 – The Trust Situation
All the discussion of surveillance reminded me of one of the lectures I’d heard at 25C3 (drawing these sorts of connections is, ostensibly, what my liberal arts education was all about—damn you for bending my brain, Pomona!). In modern-day, non-communist Germany, there is an idea, enshrined in law as a constitutional principle by a ruling of the highest court, known as “Informational Self-Determination” (it’s one of those catchy compound words in German).
This principle states that in order to act as a free citizen, one must feel like a free person. The idea is that if you fear monitoring and repression from the state, you will preemptively modify your actions and behavior even in the absence of any actual repression. The state won’t need to manipulate you because you (or your fear) will manipulate yourself.
This is a really intriguing idea, and one that I’d never considered or even encountered prior to the presentation. The speaker explained that it was “a very German concept,” so perhaps it’s easier for Germans to get an intuitive grasp on. As he explained it, in order to feel like a free person, to retain your right to informational self-determination, there are basically two options.
The first is to avoid surveillance altogether. This has been the most popular option, historically, but it’s become a bit impractical in modern society. Today, if you live in a developed nation, you are under surveillance that is much more comprehensive (if perhaps less overtly sinister) than any formerly faced by the citizens of the DDR. When you go outside, you are being observed and recorded perhaps dozens of times per day; when you go to the supermarket, your purchases are compiled in a database; if you carry a modern mobile phone, your movements might be traced; any bank transactions you make are stored in computer databases that might not be all that secure; and on the internet, of course, virtually everything you do is recorded and logged somewhere, by somebody. An excellent (and mostly quite accurate) novel dealing with the subject of digital surveillance is Cory Doctrow’s Little Brother.
The other option, if you can’t avoid being watched, is to be clear about who’s watching you and what they’re watching for. This is goal of data-protection laws in Germany and other European nations: to regulate what information is stored, and more importantly, keep citizens aware of what that information is, and which agencies have it. The theory is that in this way, you can still be self-determining. As long as you always know who knows what about you, you won’t need to modify your behavior out of paranoia.
The crux of the 25C3 presentation was that in reality, this theory is critically flawed. Data protection law is a complex, nebulous mass of rules and regulations that its own authors could barely be expected to understand, let alone ordinary citizens. The general public only hears about data protection when it fails, further stoking paranoia. There are real costs to this fear: people scared to report crimes, whistle-blowers nervous about coming forward, drug addicts afraid to seek help, illegal immigrants too frightened to seek medical care.
On a very fundamental level, the idea behind data protection is broken—there’s always going to be at least some information about me floating around beyond my awareness or control. My friends may tell stories about me to third-parties without my knowing. This doesn’t bother me very much because I generally trust my friends, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t tell them anything really personal to begin with.
One big problem that I see with data protection law is that it implies that citizens are supposed to trust all institutions covered by these laws equally. Either we’re supposed to believe that the law will make all companies and government agencies act responsibly with our data, or we hear about leaks and violations, and become paranoid, fearing that all institutions are equally untrustworthy.
In my mind, a much better, but perhaps more mentally demanding approach is to make judgments on a case-by-case basis about when, how much, and to whom we surrender private information. According to the Germans, carrying out this approach means my informational self-determination has been compromised, since it involves modifying my behavior. I don’t have an answer to that, except to say that I’m sort of naturally suspicious and paranoid with regard to large, faceless institutions, so maybe it’s not that much of a modification for me.
In real life, this means thinking twice before filling out forms asking for personal information (or filling them out accurately, anyway). I don’t have any moral problem with lying about my name and address on an application for a supermarket savings card. If you do, just tell them you forgot your card and most of the time the clerk will type one in for you (Protip: At Jewel, the “store card” number is 48530887678; you can key it in at the self-checkout terminals, too). In the USA, many businesses (video rental places, for example) will ask for your social security number when all they really want is some 9-digit number to keep track of you with. Ask if it’s ok to use another number, or just make one up. Why would Blockbuster need that, anyway?
In the context of the internet, it can be trickier to avoid giving up information you’d rather keep private, but through the judicious use of certain tools (chiefly cryptographic in nature), you can reduce your exposure.
Until relatively recently, historically speaking, strong cryptography was classed as a weapon, and remained the exclusive province of armies and ambassadors. The history of how PGP was developed, and then leaked onto the internet in contravention of laws forbidding exporting military technology from the United States is truly fascinating in its own right, and would be well-worth devoting a book to (possible titles: “When math is a gun,” “The algorithm is mightier than the sword,” “Prime Exportation,”).
There are several ways ordinary computer-users can take advantage of cryptography to protect their privacy. Not all of them are dead-simple, unfortunately.
If you want to encrypt your email communications, there are detailed instructions available here. It’s not as simple as it should be, though, and both parties need to be using some implementation of OpenPGP. It took me a bit of messing around to get it right, so your mileage may vary.
If you’d like to have secure instant messenger conversations (over AIM, MSN, ICQ, etc.) you can use the Off-The-Record plugin with a variety of messaging programs. If you use Pidgin, setting this up really is very simple/mostly automatic, as opposed to the email encryption above.
Finally, if you’re connecting to the internet over an unsecured wireless network, or a network that you have reason to distrust (say it’s run by a bunch of crazy German hackers), you can secure all your browser traffic (and other kinds of traffic) by using PuTTY (or another SSH client) to set up an encrypted tunnel and sending all your traffic through it. There are good instructions for doing this here (read the addendum too, esp. #2) , and if you’re curious about what’s going on, here’s a pretty readable explanation.
If you haven’t got a box at home you can run the OpenSSH server on (and honestly, lots of normal people don’t), there are a variety of places you can get free shell accounts online. I’ve been very happy with the generous folks at rootshell.be. After you’ve signed up, just use roothsell.be as the hostname in the instructions above. If you use their service, you should probably be courteous and not hog all their bandwidth watching youtube videos. Or, if you do, donate some money their way.
Also, note that SSH tunneling is not end-to-end encryption, so you’re still trusting rootshell.be, or wherever you connect, and their ISP, to play nice and not monitor all your data. Really, it’s only useful when your immediate local network is suspect for some reason.
That’s about it for the crypto I use on a regular basis. If you’re using Firefox as your browser, there are a couple extensions I would recommend that can help enhance your privacy to some degree.
The first is CustomizeGoogle, which has all sorts of features to enhance your Google experience. The relevant ones are under the “privacy” menu and allow you to anonymize the user ID of the Google cookie, which makes you appear to be a new user every time you visit Google, making it harder for our benevolent information overlords to construct a comprehensive profile of the innards of our souls. You can also choose to reject cookies from Google Analytics, which makes it harder for Google to monitor your surfing across 3rd-party sites that use the service to track their own visitors (Disclosure: this site does not use Google Analytics, but does track page views with a local SlimStat install).
The other is CookieMonster, which gives you very fine-grained control over which sites can set cookies on your machine, and what type of cookies they can set. Most cookies add nothing to your browsing experience, and are only useful to advertisers who want to track your surfing behavior. If you install this extension, you will have to enable “session cookies” for any sites you want to be able to log into (your email, your bank site, message boards, etc.). Session cookies are deleted when you close your browser, so they’re generally much less of a privacy concern.
So if you’re willing to compromise your informational self-determination, there’s a fair bit you can do to prevent anyone you don’t trust from gathering too much information about you. It’s worth remembering that mostly they don’t care one whit about you personally, and their motives are no more sinister than trying to make a quick buck. And, of course, no security is perfect.