During a recent trip to Germany, I embarked on what I half-jokingly called a surveillance sightseeing tour in Berlin. More than at any other destination, the city’s vast collection of Cold War–related sites and history offers a wide array of surveillance-related attractions.
These include landmarks such as Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War; Teufelsberg, an abandoned U.S. National Security Agency listening post in the Grunewald forest; and the Stasi Museum in the former headquarters of the infamous East German secret police.
The museum was an ideal destination for surveillance sightseeing, in an uncomfortable sort of way. Entering the Stasi’s old stomping ground — specifically the administrative offices and personal quarters of its longest-serving chief and visionary, Erich Mielke — was eerily ordinary, like stepping into a collection of carefully preserved living rooms. The offices are still furnished with modern carpeting and wooden desks adorned with rotary phones, typewriters and ancient switchboards. If not for the surrounding exhibition (which documents the history, victims and methods of the East German state), one might get nostalgic for a dead grandmother’s old parlor. In a reception room near Mielke’s office, a full-body mirror appears to scream for selfies. Naturally, I obliged.
Being framed against the ephemera of East Germany’s ruthless surveillance machine summoned a recurring thought: Despite the revelations by WikiLeaks and NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, there is still a general belief in the West that oppressive forms of political surveillance belong to another time or place — contained in the snow globe of a turbulent era yet simultaneously quotidian and unremarkable.
In the U.S. this myopic detachment persists even though surveillance remains a daily reality, not just under foreign dictatorships but also in our own backyard.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s surveillance and sabotage under its first director, J. Edgar Hoover — most vividly remembered for the well-documented smear campaigns against civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. — might make one believe that politically repressive surveillance is something confined to a past era. However, recent revelations indicate the U.S. government has been regularly monitoring members of the Black Lives Matter movement since the early days of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
Two of the movement’s most influential activists — Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie — were labeled threat actors and assigned a high severity level when they participated in the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore earlier this year, according to a crisis management report (PDF) prepared by the cybersecurity firm ZeroFox.
The outfit maintained continuous monitoring of the protesters’ social media accounts, providing minute-by-minute updates of their movements and briefed classified partners at the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade. The Department of Homeland Security monitored protests in Washington, D.C., even though a department memo to officials acknowledged it had “no current intel that these marches will be anything but peaceful” and an intelligence bulletin from the FBI noted that there is “no information suggesting violent behavior is planned.”
It demonstrates once again that the purpose of such surveillance has never been protection from vague threats to national security. As with the FBI’s crackdown on civil rights leaders in the 1960s and ’70s and leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the monitoring was intended to intimidate those who dare to organize and galvanize popular opposition by marking them potential terrorists and criminals.
In view of these troubling parallels, the Stasi Museum represents a visceral kind of cultural-historical introspection that is rare in the United States. For example, only one of the 35,000 museums in the U.S., opened in December by a retired lawyer, is wholly dedicated to the foul legacy and history of slavery. Similarly, there is only one museum, which opened in 2013, remembering the brutal internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 70th anniversary of which was commemorated last month, has no dedicated museum on U.S. soil. American self-reflection on the event is limited to a textbook remembrance of “necessary” acts of war, rather than the unspeakable crimes of mass murder committed by the U.S.
Today’s global surveillance looks nothing like its historical predecessors. But the security apparatus benefits from a similar collective amnesia. In tales of the Stasi, much attention is devoted to the extreme methods used against those deemed deviants and enemies of the state. These include home invasions and wiretaps on those designated subversives as well as the practice of placing sweat rags under interrogation chairs to preserve individuals’ scents in a jar and later give to sniffer dogs.
The focus on the physical manifestations of past surveillance tactics conceals the fact that their core functionalities have not only remained intact but also become optimized and automated. In the post-9/11 era, the Patriot Act and other measures ostensibly aimed at combating the menace of terrorism have reversed most of the legal prohibitions that addressed the past excesses of CoIntelPro, the FBI’s infamous surveillance and intimidation campaign against the civil rights movement and anyone else it considered subversive. As a result, we now live under a ubiquitous and infinitely more complex mass-monitoring regime that makes the arbitrary activation of state tyranny against anyone practically trivial.
Millions of NSA sensors secretly deployed on network switches and undersea cables around the world soak up the metadata and communications of countless individuals — known and unknown. Through the digital residue we produce as a consequence of using communications networks, the Stasi sweat rags have been reproduced at scale and the dogs replaced by cellphone-sniffing algorithms and Predator drones. “We are all living under martial law, as far as our communications are concerned,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said in 2011. “We just can’t see the tanks, but they are there.”
Germany’s surveillance history is different from the United States’ in many obvious ways. But the Stasi Museum shows there is much to be gained from prominently memorializing Washington’s mistakes. Yet remembering history is more than just erecting a museum. It’s also having the vigilance and courage to recognize when past evils creep into the present — even when they manifest slowly and in different forms.