Spy On The Terrorists – Don’t Turn Us Into East Germany

Angela Merkel is angry - Pictire courtesy BBC

Angela Merkel is angry – Picture courtesy BBC

There is something poignant about the anger of Angel Merkel, a woman born into the communist police state of East Germany, at the allegations that she has been spied on by America’s National Security Agency (NSA) – allegations that have not been denied by the White House.

For Merkel grew up in the shadow of the Stasi, the feared Ministry of State Security of the German Democratic Republic, the Soviet side of a Germany left divided at the end of the end of the second world war. The Stasi brought a certain Teutonic efficiency to the business of spying on its own citizens: every factory, every street, ever tenement block had its own Stasi informer; movements were logged, visiting relatives watched and foreign tourists followed – and every phone call was monitored.

The Soviet empire in eastern Europe collapsed before the mobile phone revolution, the spread of the internet and the emergence of the so-called cloud with its warehouses full of computers. Just imagine what the Stasi could have done with ubiquitous CCTV, with location-tracking mobile phones and with supercomputers capable of screening millions of emails and phone conversations simultaneously.

Craving for data

But it seems that we do not have to imagine too hard. We just need to take a look at the reported activities of the NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to find out. They appear to have jacked into the electronic arteries of modern civilisation, prised open back doors into the systems run by Google, Facebook and the rest of the IT industry, and are now busy mining and sifting all the data that they can get their hands on. They are mainlining the very essence of all our lives- where we go, who we communicate with and what we say. And, like all junkies, they crave ever more and want to keep their habit secret.

Of course, they are doing a vital job in seeking out terrorists but they seem to be doing a lot more than that as well. The tools that help to track the terrorists can be tasked to other targets as well, such as foreign leaders, business executives and, just maybe, you and me. And the temptation to do so seems to have been too great to resist.

Computer power grows

The power of the silicon chip to process information doubles roughly every 18 months. This means that even if the spy agencies do not currently have the ability to monitor the electronic activities of all of us, all of the time, then they soon will do. History suggests that anything that is technologically possible will get pressed into service. And the evidence of the last few days is that if the spy agencies have the capability to do something, then they will do it. It is, after all, human nature.

But the cost of computer technology is falling as its power is growing. One day this surveillance technology will become widespread; it will be available to all government departments, to private businesses and even to technically savvy individuals. And temptation is not unique to spooks. Look at what the UK tabloid press got up to with the phone hacking. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), Britain’s tax authority, already uses surveillance to track tax evaders and has even used investigative powers meant to catch criminals for snooping on the whistleblower who exposed the controversial Vodafone sweetheart tax deal.

And then there is local government: British civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch reports that surveillance operations have been mounted by UK local authorities to investigate suspected dog fouling, fly-tipping and smoking in no-smoking areas. Anti-social and illegal, yes, but hardly threats to the realm.

Use the law

Stopping terrorism is one thing – filming a secret smoke in a quiet corner is quite another. And the prospect of everyone from Google, and the tax inspector through to social services and your local bureaucrats being able to monitor all your phone calls and emails is frightening.

There is a powerful combination of law and technology at work here. We can not put the technology genie back into the bottle and the surveillance state is here to stay. But the law can be tightened. We should order the spy agencies and law enforcement to focus on terrorists and serious crooks, tell officialdom to stop snooping on the citizenry and legislate for private companies and individuals to mind their own business.

Chancellor Merkel is right to be angry. We all need to get angry. Otherwise, one day, and sooner than you might think, you may find yourself waking up in East Germany.

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