A recent McClatchy Newspaper article, provides a sardonic perspective on the massive surveillance practices by the NSA ( national Security Agency) in the United States. Wolfgang Schmidt, the 73 year-old former head of the East German secret police, the Stasi, appears to express some envy of the NSA capabilities as compared to the defunct Statsi organization. He is quoted that , “You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,”. The article describes that he laments that back in Cold War era, his organization could only tap 40 phones at a time !
However, these more limited capabilities did not prevent the Stasi from becoming one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. The Wikipedia article on the Stasi enumerates the extensive means it developed to spy on and control its citizens and others :
Officers were posted to all major industrial plants; one tenant in every apartment building was an informant ; Schools, universities, and hospitals were extensively infiltrated ; citizens were secretly filmed in apartments and hotels ; foreigners and official state guests were closely monitored ; garbage was analyzed for any suspect objects ; there was surveillance of mail and telephone communications and the Stasi had its own penal system and special armed forces.
While a western democracy like the US is a long way from most such activities. The words of the former spy master himself, should alert us to what possibilities may nonetheless exist. In the article Mr. Schmidt states, “It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”
Obviously a hypocritical statement coming from the likes of Mr. Schmidt. But given what he knew about constructing one of the most repressive surveillance societies in modern times. His words should not be taken lightly.
The Stasi was not content in only gathering intelligence with technological means. Their most effective technique was creating a society filled with its informants. Turning citizen against citizen. Having neighbors and friends become their spies in the streets. According to one source, there was one informer to every seven citizens, who collaborated with the Stasi.
When technological surveillance is not considered adequate for security. It can be too easy for intelligence agencies to use all this personal information that has been gathered, to recruit human informants by giving material or social incentives, imbueing the spying with a sense of adventure or using personal information to blackmail people into participation.
Appeals to an overarching danger are usually invoked to try to justify and disguise these pernicious practices. " In East Germany, the threats came under the banner of disloyalty to socialist ideals. In the United States, the monitoring programs come under the banner of anti-terrorism."