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The Surveillance State

An introduction

It should be the purpose of any state to give its citizens as much freedom as possible, while at the same time protecting them from harm. Freedom involves certain risks, so security means the loss of certain freedoms. In a democratic state, the concepts of freedom and security must therefore be balanced out against each other.

The term “surveillance state” describes a form of government that tracks and records locations, conversations, and connections between its citizens.

This manner of imposing control will eventually influence how people act, which imposes boundaries on privacy. Privacy is a basic human right, just as peace, food, and physical integrity are. That makes privacy a prerequisite for a functioning society.

A historic example of the surveillance state is the State Security Service (Stasi), the intelligence service of the GDR (German Democratic Republic). They used surveillance technology to intimidate and terrorize their own people, in order to suppress opposition against the government. Some of their methods were:

  • Systematically humiliating individual citizens in public by laying open true and false (but believable) incriminating connections
  • Systematically planning failures of individual people in society or their career with the aim of destroying their confidence
  • Purposefully spreading rumors about individuals or groups of people
  • Summoning people to state institutions or government departments under various presumptions

This set of methods, called “Zersetzung” (degradation), served the state of the GDR in manipulating its citizens and playing them off against each other. About one in ninety of all GDR citizens was either an employee or an informer of the Stasi. Communication technology in 1970 was essential for them: telephones were wiretapped, neighbors were double agents, members of the opposition were named and shamed in public media.

Even back in 1970, these techniques helped the state enforce its goals against its own population. Today, however, our governments have much more potent tools available:

  • CCTV in many cities
  • long-term preservation of telecommunication data
  • location- and movement-tracking of any citizen via smartphones
  • retaining and passing on personal data by way of online services (Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, AOL, and Verizon)
  • monitoring monetary transactions by way of money transfer services, debit and credit cards

All this means that any citizen can be tracked and wiretapped anywhere and anytime. States also do this with the argument of early prevention of crimes and fighting terrorism. Every person, however, is thus being treated as a potential criminal.

The crackerbarrel-logic of “I don’t have anything to hide, let them have my data” must be refuted once and for all: the danger for people is not what happens with their data right now, it is much rather what might be done with it in the future.

Critical voices can be—and are—identified and silenced very quickly. This means restricting the freedom of speech, which in turn directly subverts democracy.

9/11 and the Patriot Act

“He who prefers security to freedom is a slave by all rights.”

In the vein of September 11, 2001 and the destruction of the World Trade Center, the U.S. issued a series of laws that are closely related to the concept of the surveillance state: the Patriot Act.

This series of laws immediately restricted many rights of U.S. citizens and people entering the country: from that point on, the FBI was allowed to monitor anyone’s telephones and activities on the internet and to enter homes at will, all without the need of a warrant. Bank accounts and money transfers of all citizens were laid open to the FBI, and even the foreign intelligence service CIA is now being employed for internal affairs.

The measures entailed by the Patriot Act were introduced on an international scale and they violated various national laws, even in Europe. If at first it was assumed that these violations were only isolated incidents, the intelligence- and surveillance-affair unveiled by Edward Snowden in 2013 put an end to this assumption—individuals and corporate bodies all over the world, including politicians and managers, were being spied upon for years by U.S. secret services.

NSA — the Global Surveillance and Spying-Affair

The NSA (National Security Agency) is the largest U.S. foreign intelligence service. The NSA is responsible for the evaluation of international electronic communication. This includes the surveillance of political allies and corporate espionage.

In June 2013, NSA spy Edward Snowden flees to Russia, after having made public the greatest surveillance scandal in history: PRISM.

“I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.”
—Edward Snowden, 2013

Since 2005, PRISM collects and stores data and interactions of all internet users worldwide: e-mails, search requests, video conferences, and generally all data that is saved on the web—with the help of popular services of the great internet corporations: Microsoft (with Skype), Google (with YouTube), Facebook, Yahoo!, Apple, AOL, and more.


In 2009, INDECT, a research project by the European Union, was called into being. Participating countries are, among others, Poland, France, Bulgaria, the UK, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.

The project’s goal is the automatic interconnection and analysis of surveillance data from CCTV-cameras, drones, internet forums, social networks, search engines, and smartphones. The software is supposed to detect “abnormal activity” at an early stage. Examples for such suspicious behavior are “sitting on the ground for too long” or “losing a piece of luggage”.

The INDECT program is receiving harsh international criticism for its foreseeable infringements of fundamental civic rights. German newspaper Die Zeit called the project the “the E.U.’s dream of the police state, in which concepts like the presumption of innocence or compelling evidence lose their meaning”.

The Five Eyes Alliance

What we have covered so far are only one part of the surveillance activities that are employed across the globe. Further examples are GCHQ, MI5 & MI6 in the UK; DDIS, GCSB & NZSIS in New Zealand; CDIS, CSEC & CSIS in Canada; or ASIS, ASD & DIO in Australia.

Together with the NSA, the CIA and the FBI in the U.S., these measures are called the “Five Eyes Alliance”, and the participating states unhesitantly spy on each other and share the data they aggregate. In doing so, they deliberately ignore individual state legislature.

In the end, the question remains in how far all these endeavors serve the security of citizens if they bypass human rights and democracy. In our information age, personal data are the most important good, and everyone should be anxious for them not to fall into the wrong hands.

Alternatives & Handy Hints

What can an individual person do to work against the surveillance state? Here are some quick fixes and alternatives that can go a long way.

Data Awareness

Be aware that all of your personal data are being collected constantly and can be combined at will, once you give them away. So, if something appears to you as important or worthy of protection, you should not put this information out on the web or spread it without your control. Watch your personal data and also whom you’re giving access to it.

Secure Internet Software

Especially on the internet you can find and use alternative software that respects your privacy and data security.

As an alternative browser to Internet Explorer or Google Chrome, we recommend Firefox. It is open-source and managed by the non-commercial Mozilla Organization.

As an alternative to Google Search, you can use, because it does not store search requests and personal data.

Additionally, we suggest using ad blockers like AdBlock or Tor Browser, so third parties cannot track your internet activity.

Smartphone Data & GPS

Your smartphone constantly transmits your location and other data to various service providers, whether you want it to or not. You cannot prevent this altogether, but you can reduce it. To do so, simply turn off your mobile network connection and your location data (GPS) when you don’t need them. You could also just leave your phone at home every once in a while.

If possible, communicate the analog way

On the internet, everything can be recorded and evaluated. This is the prerequisite for an extensive surveillance. So you should refrain from using digital communication whenever possible. Hang out with people instead of chatting with them, or buy stuff in the store around the corner instead of on Amazon.

Don’t use Payback Cards, Loyalty Cards, or Sweepstakes

Most loyalty cards and sweepstakes don’t serve the purpose of giving you any value. Instead, they are used to track and analyze your shopping behavior, on the internet and in your convenience store. The data they aggregate, including your personal profiles, is then sold off to other companies. If you don’t want that, just don’t use those cards.

Keep track of your data

When you join services on the web or in the real world, never give them more information than needed. As soon as you stop using their service, cancel your subscription and delete your data. In this way, you keep better track of your data and reduce the danger of giving information into the wrong hands.

Smartphone App Permissions

When you install an app on your smartphone, usually the permissions that the app wants are being displayed. Take heed that software doesn’t try to access your sensitive data, like your address book. If that’s the case, question the app’s actual value for you or look around for an alternative.

Disallow Data Dissemination

Many services, including your registration office, will ask you for permission of transferring your data to third parties. Disallow this as often as possible, because usually there’s nothing in it for you. On the contrary, this data might much rather be used to send you advertisements and the like.

This article is intended to further raise awareness of a topic that will eventually impact everyone. We wrote it especially for the people outside of the information industry, without a deeper understanding of the technologies and patterns. Please share it, translate it and distribute it freely, without the need of acknowledgement or credit.

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