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You Know Who Else Collected Metadata?
by Julia Angwin
ProPublica, Feb. 11, 2014, 3:02 p.m.

The East German secret police, known as the Stasi, were an infamously intrusive secret police force. They amassed dossiers on about one quarter of the population of the country during the Communist regime.

But their spycraft while incredibly invasive was also technologically primitive by today's standards. While researching my book Dragnet Nation, I obtained the above hand drawn social network graph and other files from the Stasi Archive in Berlin, where German citizens can see files kept about them and media can access some files, with the names of the people who were monitored removed.

The graphic shows forty-six connections, linking a target to various people (an "aunt," "Operational Case Jentzsch," presumably Bernd Jentzsch, an East German poet who defected to the West in 1976), places ("church"), and meetings ("by post, by phone, meeting in Hungary").

Gary Bruce, an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo and the author of "The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi," helped me decode the graphic and other files. I was surprised at how crude the surveillance was. "Their main surveillance technology was mail, telephone, and informants," Bruce said.

Another file revealed a low-level surveillance operation called an IM-vorgang aimed at recruiting an unnamed target to become an informant. (The names of the targets were redacted; the names of the Stasi agents and informants were not.) In this case, the Stasi watched a rather boring high school student who lived with his mother and sister in a run-of-the-mill apartment. The Stasi obtained a report on him from the principal of his school and from a club where he was a member. But they didn't have much on him I've seen Facebook profiles with far more information.

A third file documented a surveillance operation known as an OPK, for Operative Personenkontrolle, of a man who was writing oppositional poetry. The Stasi deployed three informants against him but did not steam open his mail or listen to his phone calls. The regime collapsed before the Stasi could do anything further.

I also obtained a file that contained an "observation report," in which Stasi agents recorded the movements of a forty-year-old man for two days September 28 and 29, 1979. They watched him as he dropped off his laundry, loaded up his car with rolls of wallpaper, and drove a child in a car "obeying the speed limit," stopping for gas and delivering the wallpaper to an apartment building. The Stasi continued to follow the car as a woman drove the child back to Berlin.

The Stasi agent appears to have started following the target at 4:15 p.m. on a Friday evening. At 9:38 p.m., the target went into his apartment and turned out the lights. The agent stayed all night and handed over surveillance to another agent at 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning. That agent appears to have followed the target until 10:00 p.m. From today's perspective, this seems like a lot of work for very little information.

And yet, the Stasi files are an important reminder of what a repressive regime can do with so little information.

(Translations at the link.)


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"We'll know our disinformation campaign is complete when everything the American public believes is false." --William J. Casey, D.C.I

"We will lead every revolution against us." --Theodore Herzl
While the STASI were perhaps the best [read worst] of the East European Communist intelligence agencies - I can confirm from my extensive work in the Czechoslovak Communist-era Secret Police [StB] Archives, that much the same went on here - if, perhaps, with a slightly lower % of the population actively followed. Czechoslovakia was #1, however, in phone taps in the world! While doing research on the secret end of WWII for a book I've been working on, I spent many hours in the archives - as the files are not allowed out. Citizens of the [now] Czech Republic would be at the tables around me and I occasionally got a glimpse of the size and nature of their [or their family's] files they were looking at. Some were laughing - others were in tears. As my own quest was on certain specific persons, I got to see in the many files I read and copied how the StB operated. Methods were, yes, primitive compared to the technology today....but very comprehensive and invasive and the StB too used to build up profiles which one could call 'metadata' - if mostly not electronic. Agents or informants following a target were to note even the number of beers the target was drinking - as well as who they spoke to and where they went, etc. Agents even noted their own beers while following [so they could be reimbursed!]. We have learned nothing from the past and are repeating the mistakes - the worst mistakes - with the 'advantages' of current technology. One of my 'targets' was a former high-level SS man who was imprisoned for a many years in Czechoslovakia and interrogated by the StB as to Nazi secrets that might be yet buried on Czechoslovak territory [much was!]; so I also got to see reports of his interrogations and what he was subjected to. He was encouraged to write mail and receive it - and every one of those communications was copied and in his files. Ah, but the NSA has computers now connected to and sucking up everything......and in their minds [sic], we are all suspect and potential evil-doers.
"Let me issue and control a nation's money and I care not who writes the laws. - Mayer Rothschild
"Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience! People are obedient in the face of poverty, starvation, stupidity, war, and cruelty. Our problem is that grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem!" - Howard Zinn
"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will" - Frederick Douglass

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