This week has been full of work on this project, including research in the BStU reading room, and making photographs at the archives at the former headquarters and the Stasi Museum. Today, for the first time, I visited The Memorial to Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, a large former prison complex which includes a former Stasi detention and interrogation center. Berlin-Hohenschönhausen began as a Nazi barrack camp for prisoners of war during WWII. After the fall of Nazi Germany it was used by the Soviet NKVD (the secret police) as a camp for interning political prisoners and former Nazis.
The facility was taken over by the GDR Ministry for State Security (MfS) in 1951. For nearly 40 years the MfS used part of it as a secret (it was not located on official city maps) detention and interrogation center. Here, over 10,000 political prisoners were detained and subjected to physical and psychological torture to gain information in preparation for sentencing by the courts.
The MfS staff who worked here were trained at the “Stasi University” (Potsdam) to destabilize and destroy the personality of their prisoners. Their methods included sleep deprivation, isolation, and other harassment that left the prisoners psychologically damaged. They also made references to prisoners’ loved ones, spouses and children, in order to coerce confessions and encourage cooperation.
The methods for social isolation were particularly effective. Prisoners were often kidnapped and placed in a cage inside a van disguised as a delivery vehicle. The vehicle would drive around endlessly to disorient the prisoner and then arrive at a special closed-off garage in the detention center.
Once inside the buildings an elaborate series of electronic circuits controlled red and green lights in the hallways to direct the flow of prisoners and make certain they would never have the chance to encounter one another.
This last note offers an important comparison to today’s social networks and surveillance capitalism methodologies. In social networks, the organization benefits from the flow of information between participants. They want to stimulate their users to interact and continue generating profit by using the site, producing data, and viewing ads. The Stasi’s torture of political prisoners, on the other hand, intentionally removed all stimulation and human contact. The sensory deprivation and isolation that prisoners experienced in their cells dehumanized, weakened, and prepared them to to give up information the Stasi wanted.
Our information society has transformed the way we think about private information. While we freely give it up in exchange for social capital, companionship, and the serve the impulse to communalize our experiences, it does not mean that the social networks and corporations who deal in that data are not responsible when our information is misused. The recent revelation that the U.K. defense contractor turned data dealer, BAE, sold cyber-surveillance tools to Arab states is proof of this. BAE peddled their sophisticated total surveillance system, with a generic yet telling name, “Evident” (a marketing variation of “criminal evidence”?) to six Middle Eastern countries previously criticised for repressing their citizens. These countries can now use the tool to scour the internet for sites, blogs, and social networks for information on anyone they consider an opponent. A former BAE employee put it like this:
“You’d be able to intercept any internet traffic,” he said. “If you wanted to do a whole country, you could. You could pin-point people’s location based on cellular data. You could follow people around. They were quite far ahead with voice recognition. They were capable of decrypting stuff as well.”
Digital information is inherently insecure. It’s easy to surveill, copy, and duplicate by design. Equally, it is easy to reimplement a surveillance software system that is designed to be sold to do so. The Stasi was a terrible organization, but their work was generally confined to the GDR. There was collaboration across the USSR satellite police organizations, but their work wasn’t on a global market. Looking back at the Stasi provides this evidence; The employees and stockholders of any company that benefits from the sale of such a system to inflict human rights abuses are as guilty as the Stasi employees who worked in the offices and never directly inflicted damage. Surveillance capitalism isn’t just about the profit generated by social network ads, it includes the manufacture and sales of systems like Evident, and all those who derive profit from such decentralized institutions.