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.

I Know Where Your Cat Lives launched

I just launched a new ongoing project this week. Here’s the text, a video and some screenshots. I’ll post more about how I made it soon.

Welcome to the today’s internet—you can buy anything, every website is tracking your every move, and anywhere you look you find videos and images of cats. Currently, there are 15 million images tagged with the word “cat” on public image hosting sites, and daily thousands more are uploaded from unlimited positions on the globe.

“I Know Where Your Cat Lives” is a data experiment that visualizes a sample of 1 million public pics of cats on a world map, locating them by the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in their metadata. The cats were accessed via publicly available APIs provided by popular photo sharing websites. The photos were then run through various clustering algorithms using a supercomputer at Florida State University in order to represent the enormity of the data source.

This project explores two uses of the internet: the sociable and humorous appreciation of domesticated felines, and the status quo of personal data usage by startups and international megacorps who are riding the wave of decreased privacy for all. This website doesn’t visualize all of the cats on the net, only the ones that allow you to track where their owners have been.

Folks can also contribute to a kickstarter to help with hosting costs.

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“The Earth Observation Guide” – Post Media Lab notes

I’m back from Lüneberg, Germany and already missing the simplicity of traveling by train as well as the pleasure of fine wurst. However I had an engaging few days at the Post Media Lab’s Taking Care of Things!. The event began with a keynote by Kelly Dobson from RISD, followed by a tour of Stadtarchive the next morning. Then we broke off into groups to address various topics around archives, art, media, and politics.

I worked in the Measure Drones group with colleagues, Kristian Lukic, Moritz Queisner, Boaz Levin, Daniel Herleth, Adam Kaplan, Frédéric Eyl, and Oliver Lerone Schultz (one of the coordinators of Taking Care of Things along with Christina Kral). Together, over the course of two days, we worked together to conceive, research, write, illustrate, and design a booklet called “The Earth Observation Guide.” This is not a history of art about drones, nor does it try to tackle the whole subject. Rather it is more akin to a time capsule that preserves a moment in time before drones are widespread. It acts as a guidebook, recording what is known about their past and present, illustrating shifts and concerns, and addressing how humans might understand their future. Here are some images of the presented work on the third day:






I also somehow managed to get my mug in the newspaper in Lüneberg. I think it says “American professor launching spy drones in Germany” or some such thing.


The group examining 16th century drawings of salt mines from the archive.