Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 8 – MfS Department M (A captured letter from the BStU archives)

The Stasi Mediathek website published by the BStU is an amazing resource. One can search for example “Abteilung M” (English: Department M) and find a range of digitized original documents related to the Stasi’s postal surveillance.

This is an example of a letter that the Stasi Department M removed from the Deutsche Post in 1962. In the letter an East German student writes to her friend in the west about her dissatisfaction with the militarism and compulsory conscription in the east and says she is considering fleeing the GDR. Surely the Stasi placed her under a watchful eye due to the information they found through their postal surveillance. It’s also interesting the Stasi one, removed the letter altogether from the postal stream, likely in order to prevent negative sentiments from appearing in western press, and two, kept the document, perhaps as evidence against her at a later date, or potentially also as a result of the thoroughness of the bureaucratic surveillance system they had developed. An English translation can be found at the above link as well. (BStU)

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 7 – MfS Department M (Development of working methods)

In the early years of the Department M, or Division VI as it was known at the time, there was no vocational training so the few dozen employees had to conceive of their own workflows. At that time, the standard set for workers who examined the contents of mail was to read “500 letters per person for each working hour.” Post control took place in special rooms of selected central post offices, where employees of Division VI covertly intercepted and opened mail. The onsite locations helped to ensure the Stasi could accumulate as much intelligence as possible while causing the lowest acceptable delay in the Paketstrom (English: packet stream). (Labrenz-Weiß, 13)

By 1952 Department M was established and locations for inspection were formalized. The five GDR states (see previous blog post) were divided into 14 districts in order to increase efficiency by moving postal control structurally closer to sender and receiver. Various statutes were established by the MfS allowing for inspection of the post in order to prevent sedition inspired by western influence, as well as to carry out censorship through interception of materials. The process for post control was also more precisely defined and subdivided into specific working groups for: 1) Sorting mail by size; 2) Technical processing; 3) Readers; 4) Writers; and 5) Employees at the lamp.

Units responsible for “Sorting” the mail passed any letters or parcels that appeared suspicious, as well as all mail destined for persons or organizations under postal control, to “Technical processing” where it was opened using steam or other nondestructive methods. It was then sent to “Readers” who sent letters to the “Writers” once it was determined the contents were worthy of being transcribed. The Writers had the job of recording the documents, preparing reports for each day, and passing information with clues for espionage, sabotage, or, after the addition of the Berlin wall, plans for escape, to relevant departments.

“The work on the lamp” investigated suspicious consignments in a dark room under a quartz lamp in order to identify clandestine forms of communication like secret writing on the surface of paper, or other methods including invisible ink. If found these documents were then passed to the OTS, or Operational-Technical Sector of the MfS, for special investigation.
These early divisions of labor served to increase efficiency much in the same way Henry Ford had done at the beginning of the century when he introduced the assembly line. Equally, the divisions helped Stasi employees to become more knowledgeable and specialized in their work, eventually developing machines to augment, improve, and speed up their tasks. (Labrenz-Weiß, 16–17)

  1. Hanna Labrenz-Weiß, Abteilung M (MfS Handbuch). Hg. BStU. Berlin 2005.

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 6 – MfS Department M (postal control selection)

Stasi Department M workers removed enormous amounts of mail from Deutsche Post each day for inspection. Mail was identified visually based on handwriting, types of letters, or specific addresses. Surveillance of mail was technically illegal in the GDR. Still, mail was withheld on an official basis “in order to prevent attacks” by western intelligence agencies, presumably using “threats and explosives.” This led to the inspection of all incoming and outgoing mail to press agencies, embassies and consulates of NATO countries, and other western correspondence.

Unofficially, in the interest of multiple surveillance, control and censorship possibilities for the Stasi, everything possible was scrutinized, both foreign and domestic. The postal inspections contributed intelligence on GDR and foreign citizens who were suspected of spying for the west. They allowed the Stasi to filter information the citizens of the GDR were allowed to access, share, or communicate to the outside world. The Stasi intercepted undesirable books, seditious content, and other materials with the ultimate goal of preventing public protests, or other conspiratorial activities. While the goal of Department M was to return the mail collected for inspection back to Deutsche Post within a 12-hour window, many deliveries were seized and never returned. This massive operation naturally resulted in frequent delays in delivery or damage to letters or parcels, which including those that never arrived, led the public to become increasingly aware of the ongoing postal inspection.

Finally, the postal surveillance provided the Stasi with information about the mood of the population in the GDR, by examining personal communications, as well as messages sent between in companies and institutions. Reports prepared by administrators in Department M on population mood included information on economic and political sentiment and specifically targeted demographic groups (Labrenz-Weiß, 13) across specific geographic locations and social strata in the GDR in order to give the best possible assessment. For example, the following population groups are described in BStU documents

  • Brandenburg: 1,000 workers each at the East coaster and the Brandenburg Steel Works, and 1,000 old and new builders
  • Mecklenburg: 1,000 workers of the shipyards, 500 students and 50 teachers of the University of Rostock, and 1,000 old and new builders
  • Saxony-Anhalt: 1,000 workers of the chemical industry and of Magdeburg heavy machinery construction, 800 students and 100 faculty members of the Martin Luther University Hall, and 1,000 old and new farmers in Altmark
  • Saxony: 1,000 workers of the Stahlwerk Riesa as well as tradesmen / merchants, and 800 students and 100 lecturers from the University of Leipzig
  • Thuringia: 1,000 workers of the Unterwellenborn steelworks, Zeiss works in Jena and tradesmen, and 800 students and 100 professors of the Jena University

East Germany’s State borders established after WWII 1945-1947 in violet. In red the borders of the new states established during reunification. Source: Wikipedia

  1. Hanna Labrenz-Weiß, Abteilung M (MfS Handbuch). Hg. BStU. Berlin 2005.

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 5 – MfS Department M (Organizational structure overview)

In 1989 Department M had 10 divisions, which were subdivided into 36 units. The head office, which consisted of 8 divisions and their corresponding units, was located in East Berlin. The divisions were organized based on mail destinations (western, non-communist countries for example), types of mail (like parcels or telegrams), or function within the scope of the work of the Department. Specific units were tasked with selecting mail for examination, while in technical processing units the selected mail was opened, examined, documented, and closed again by their respective units. Other units in Department M were assigned to inspecting customs declarations, maintaining secrecy, or operational engineering, where design, manufacturing, and maintenance of the technology took place. (Labrenz-Weiß, 8–10)

  1. Hanna Labrenz-Weiß, Abteilung M (MfS Handbuch). Hg. BStU. Berlin 2005.

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 4 – MfS Department M (the workers)

The Stasi surveilled the post of the GDR for nearly 40 years, starting with the founding in 1950, until the fall of 1989 when the Berlin wall fell. The number of workers in Department M rose from a few dozen in the beginning, to nearly 2,200 by the end. The largest office occupied two buildings in the massive Stasi headquarters complex in Berlin-Lichtenburg and included almost 500 employees, with the remaining 1,700 spread across 15 district administration offices. (Polzin, 105)

While the ratio of women to men in Department M shrank over the years possibly due to the increasing focus on technology and automation, it was consistently at least twice that of the entire MfS. In the beginning 80% of Department M employees were women, compared with 25% in the MfS, while in the 1960s 40% were women compared to 14%. In 1989 only 20% of Department M employees were women. (Labrenz-Weiß, 5)

Employees were subject to numerous specialized training to prepare them for their work. This included courses on typography, x-ray certification, and photography for those performing inspections. Employees who were integrated with Deutsche Post received information like electronic training for working with telegraph devices, operating postal vehicles, and other knowledge related to the movement of mail and parcels. Those employees charged with the development of specialized equipment for Department M studied engineering, paper technology, air and refrigeration systems, and the mechanics around the movement of postal and newspaper materials. (Labrenz-Weiß, 6)

While Department M employees were physically embedded in Deutsche Post locations, their activities there were considerably constrained in order to ensure the secrecy of their work. For example, they were required to sit in closed groups in the cafeterias in order to avoid direct contact with actual postal workers. Official contacts were only allowed with Stasi officers already embedded in the post control system special operations.

  1. Arno Polzin, Postal Inspection, Telephone Surveillance and Signal Intelligence in Daniela Münkel (eds.), State Security: A Reader on the GDR Secret Police, Berlin 2016.
  2. Hanna Labrenz-Weiß, Abteilung M (MfS Handbuch). Hg. BStU. Berlin 2005.

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 3 – MfS Department M

The Ministry for State Security’s Department M was tasked with “postal control”, or the inspection of domestic and international letters and packages. They conducted their work thanks to cooperation with Deutsche Post which, as another state institution concerned with “security of the state,” was subject to the same politics and power infrastructure of the single party system of the DDR (1). Consequently, the Department M had access to every letter and parcel which traveled throughout East Germany by inserting itself in the logistical operations of the postal system. The Stasi reserved special rooms or entire floors within the Deutsche Post buildings, which were off limits to regular post workers.

In Berlin, Department M had offices in the post office at Nordbahnhof, in the central telegraph office on Oranienburger Strasse and in the railway post office at Ostbahnhof. These rooms used by the MfS were designated “Department 12” of the German Postal Service, both internally and officially.(2)

  1. Arno Polzin, Postal Inspection, Telephone Surveillance and Signal Intelligence in Daniela Münkel (eds.), State Security: A Reader on the GDR Secret Police, Berlin 2016.
  2. Hanna Labrenz-Weiß: Abteilung M (MfS Handbuch). Hg. BStU. Berlin 2005.

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 2 – The Stasi’s automatic letter opener invention

The former East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (more popularly referred to as the MfS or “Stasi”) is widely known for the inventive and clandestine gadgets that appear in films like Das Leben der Anderen (English: The Lives of Others) or on exhibit at the Stasi Museum in Berlin. Some of my favorites from the museum are the cameras disguised as everyday, boring objects. Take this watering can with a hidden camera.

Imagine a sweet old Oma in her garden, tipping the can just so, with the intention of spying on the grandma next door. This technologically-enabled interpersonal collection of data of our “friends” was very much like how Facebook operates today. The Stasi used blackmail to infiltrate networks and get people to give up their neighbors, while Facebook coerces us in different ways; for example, through algorithms that implore us to post details from our private lives in order to build up one’s cultural capital and sense of self worth. I’ll explore this connection more in later weeks, particularly in reference to a special type of behind the scenes inventions of the Stasi: a series of machines that automatically opened personal letters and closed and resealed them after their contents were examined.

In this project, a central question is what do the motivations and methods of this machine, which was used to intercept and automate the secret unpacking and examination of personal information of letters between private citizens, tell us about how the software used by the NSA for monitoring citizens around the globe? Or about the even more secretive methods of Google or Facebook as they examine our personal information in order to influence our behavior? Until tomorrow.

Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 1 – Willkommen in Deutschland

This is the first post in a long time. Over the next two months I will add one every day while I’m working on a new stage of an ongoing project I began in Berlin in 2010. I haven’t posted like this in a while. I find it extremely helpful to share and collect research, create an arc for the work, and of course to stay focused. While the project will evolve as I add content to this space, I’ll share the essential bits from my plans here:

This proposal for a DAAD grant will support research and a series of writings and visualizations that examine how the technological inventions of the East German Ministry for State Security preempt Facebook, the NSA, and the world of Big Data. I will work at Humboldt University and the Stasi Records Agency (BStU) in Berlin and the Museum at the Round Corner in Leipzig, researching and documenting the schematics and actual machines developed by the Stasi for surveillance. With this knowledge I will frame an investigation that uses the analog devices of the Stasi to lend insight into the methods implemented today as software by social media, advertising groups, and intelligence agencies in the service of domestic surveillance and censorship.

I feel super fortunate to be able to continue this project I started almost seven years ago thanks to support from the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD (German: Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) and Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ernst at the Institute of Musicology and Media Studies at Humboldt University Berlin.

Stasi files at the BStU. These are not the personal files the Stasi collected, but notes, diagrams, and parts lists detailing the inventions and processes developed during the Stasi’s almost 40 year reign.

Beautiful Data II @ Metalab at Harvard University

This month found me at the excellent Beautiful Data II workshop at the MetaLab at Harvard University sponsored by the Getty Foundation. Participants worked together in the Carpenter Center and Harvard Art Museum under the theme “Telling Stories About Art with Open Collections.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 7.03.00 PM

There were presentations by known visualization and museums experts, breakout sessions exploring how to represent problem data and collections, and talks by participants and Metalab staff and fellows, including a wonderful group of artists, curators, designers, and scholars in attendance.

Here are a few of the many highlights starting with this nerdy shot of me…

Data Therapy workshop with Rahul Bhargava (slides1, slides2).

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 8.18.09 PM
Learning about provenance at the Harvard Art Museum (note stamp declaring Nazi property)

This spanking cat statuette from the Cooper Hewitt collection.
Colour Lens produced at Beautiful Data I.
Presentation by Seb Chan Director of Digital at Cooper Hewitt.
Memory Slam by Nick Montfort.
Meow Met Chrome extension shows cats from the Met Museum in new tabs.

Behind the scenes of Ivan Sigal‘s Karachi Circular Railway, Harvard Art Museum Lightbox.

The Life and Death of Data by Yanni Loukissas.
Ben Rubin discussing his and works by Mario Klingemann, Ryoji Ikeda, Jer Thorp and others.
William James Twitter Bot by Rachel Boyce.

Cold Storage documentary by Jeffrey Schnapp, Cristoforo Magliozzi, Matthew Battles, et al.

Cooper Hewitt Font Specimen
Cooper Hewitt typeface by Chester Jenkins

“Unicode” by Jörg Piringer shows all 49571 displayable characters in the unicode range.

*Most photos by Metalab staff

Term vs. Term for Digital Public Library of America hackathon

I made a small app to compare the number of search results for two phrases from the Digital Public Library of America for a hackathon / workshop here at Florida State next week.

dpla term vs term

Digital Humanities Hackathon II – Digital Public Library of America

Monday, April 21, 2:00-3:30 p.m.
Strozier Library, Scholars Commons Instructional Classroom [MAP]

The Digital Scholars Reading and Discussion Group will simulate its second “hackathon” on April 21, allowing participants to learn more about the back-end structure of the Digital Public Library of America. With its April 2013 launch, the DPLA became the first all-digital library that aggregates metadata from collections across the country, making them available from a single point of access. The DPLA describes itself as a freely available, web-based platform for digitized cultural heritage projects as well as a portal that connects students, teachers, scholars, and the public to library resources occurring on other platforms.

From a critical point of view, the DPLA simultaneously relies on and disrupts the principles of location and containment, making its infrastructure somewhat interesting to observe.

In this session, we will visit the DPLA’s Application Programming Interface (API) codex to observe some of the standards that contributed to its construction. We will consider how APIs function, how and why to use them, and who might access their metadata and for what purposes. For those completely unfamiliar with APIs, this session will serve as a useful introduction, as well as a demonstration of why a digital library might also want to serve as an online portal. For those more familiar with APIs, this session will serve as an opportunity to try on different tasks using the metadata that the DPLA aggregates from collections across the country.

At this particular session, we are pleased to be joined by Owen Mundy from FSU Department of Art and Richard Urban from FSU College of Communication and Information, who have considered different aspects of working with APIs for projects such as the DPLA, including visualization and graphics scripting, and developing collections dashboards.

As before, the session is designed with a low barrier of entry in mind, so participants should not worry if they do not have programming expertise or are still learning the vocabulary associated with open-source projects. We come together to learn together, and all levels of skill are accommodated, as are all attitudes and leanings.

Participants are encouraged to explore the Digital Public Library of America site prior to our meeting and to familiarize themselves with the history of the project. Laptops will be available for checkout, but attendees are encouraged to bring their own.