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Privacy, Power and Freedom in the Age of Information

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.” Austrian-born philosopher, Karl Popper, “The Open Society and Its Enemies.”

“I always thought America was so free, but …” As a high school exchange student in Germany I often heard the complaint and knew word-for-word what would follow.

Did someone prevent the Germans from exercising their Fourth Amendment rights in front of the Capitol building? Forbade them from drafting a New York Times editorial in between stints to the Grand Canyon and Disneyland? No.

The reason why America’s Land-of-the-Free reputation was losing serious ground in the court of German tourist public opinion was: “we couldn’t even go “oben-ohne” on the public beach.” Helga’s inability to display her knockers while soaking up the rays on Newport Beach was indisputable proof that The Land of Liberty was nothing more than a Hollywood-based, Bob Dylan propagated, myth.

My German at the time was far too basic to explain that Helga’s one-sy was an act of public kindness and the freedoms anchored in the Bill of Rights supported far weightier issues than her Double Ds. At the time, less than a day’s drive away, Germans far less fortunate than their Western counterparts were living in a society with very different ideas about privacy and freedom.

The government statistics office in the Hans Beimler Street counts everything, knows everything: How many shoes I buy a year: 2.3; how many books I read; 3.2, and how many students successfully complete their graduating exams: 6347. But one statistic is never recorded, perhaps because even the bureaucrats find such numbers painful, and that’s the amount of suicides. If you call Beimler-Street and ask them, how many people between the Elbe and Oder or Ost Sea and Erzgebirge were driven to their deaths by desperation, then our number oracle remains silent, and probably jots down their exact names, for the sake of national security, those grey gentleman, who are in charge of our country’s security and happiness.

– “The Lives of Others”

In 2006, German filmmaker, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck premiered, “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen) portraying a world where, in the name of national security, ordinary citizens were constantly monitored by secret government agents and anything you said or did in the privacy of your four walls could be used against you. Objectively, you might not have anything to hide, but because information is power and the state had information about your most personal exchanges, your innocence was forever vulnerable to the whims, fears and desires, of the government agents recording your data or those directing them to do so.

God is Watching You graffiti, Donaukanal, Vienna, Austria, 2014

God is Watching You graffiti, Donaukanal, Vienna, Austria, 2014

“It was a film about the mass surveillance of an entire society in the name of public security.”

This past Friday, after navigating my way through a street full of partying, kissing lesbians protesting in front of Café Prückl, I arrived at a long queue extending to the curb outside the Gartenbaukino. After a wine and some chit chat, my friends and I made our way into the cinema. Almost every single one of the 736 seats was filled. The audience represented a broad strata of the Vienna public – old and young, men and women, Austrians, Germans and English-speaking expats, alternative and conservative types, students and business people, all crammed together to see another film on mass surveillance — Citizenfour.

Since then, I’ve tried to trace my memories back to a time before email, Google, Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. I’ve recalled the clicking coins of a pay phone, the musty warm smell of a library book, the ultra-thin paper of an international letter, and the homemade covers of personalized cassette tapes. Sweet, private, transient memories from a past age in which vital words and thoughts only persevered when recorded in the hearts and minds of those that shared them.

In the dawn of the internet age, we eagerly embraced the new technology that promised a hitherto unimaginable capability to connect with people around the world and access to treasure troves of information previously stored in the dusty bowels of libraries and archives. All in the blink of an eye, in real time, news, photos, recipes, songs from Cincinnati to Sydney, were ours for the taking. Adieu old publishing house gatekeepers, hello information age. As technology advanced in leaps and bounds, computers decreased in size and the ability to store terabytes of information increased at a phenomenal rate.

The future seemed rosy.

Then came the cookies (not chocolate chip), personalized ads (no banner behind the airplane), smart search engines, chat archives, tracking software, motion activated video cameras and cloud computing. Suddenly Lyndon Johnson’s words in 1968 when urging members of the US Congress to enact the Privacy Act, seemed chillingly prescient:

“We must protect the American people against a new threat to one of our oldest and most precious rights—the right of personal privacy.

The principle that a man’s home is his castle is under new attack. For centuries the law of trespass protected a man’s lands and his home. But in the age of advanced technology, thick walls and locked doors cannot guard our privacy or safeguard our personal freedom. Today we need a strong law – suited to modern conditions — to protect us from those who would trespass upon our conversations.”

“Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.”

At one point in Citizenfour, Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, jots down information he would like to share, then shows the pad of paper to the person he’d like to share it with, and once it has been read, rips it to shreds, and leaves it in a pile no doubt destined for a match and garbage can. It reminded me of a very similar scene in “The Lives of Others” when one character points to hidden listening devices in the walls, turns up a record player and then holds up hand-written signs to communicate with his visitor.

Throughout the history of mankind, people have been abused, flogged, stoned, tortured, interned, exiled and put to death for adhering to the wrong religion, the wrong race, the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong political party, the wrong social class, the wrong education level, and the wrong belief system. “Wrong” determined by power, not objective principle. The “harmless” information stored about you today could be the proof of your adherence to the “wrong” tomorrow.

Watch “The Lives of Others.” Then watch, “Citizenfour.” Then try not to think about watching what you say, do or type, because, who knows who else could be watching and their definition of wrong vs. right.

It begs the question: Are we now all living the lives of others?


My hero, John Oliver, tries to convince the American public, this is an important issue and goes to Moscow to interview Edward Snowden – you have to watch this:


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

– Pastor Martin Neimöller in reference to the failure of citizens to act against the Nazi regime.


Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [enthusiastic] I’ve got a new one. So… Honecker comes into his office in the morning… opens the window, looks at the sun, and says…

Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [starts to worry] … eh… what is it?

Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [startled] Oh, excuse me. That was… I’m just… I…

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: [tries to put Stigler at ease] No no no, please colleague. We can still laugh about our state officials. Don’t worry.

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: [almost laughing] I probably know it already anyway.

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: [encouraging] Come on! Tell it.

Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [feeling more comfortable] Well… Honecker, I mean… the General Secretary… sees the sun, and says, ‘Good morning dear sun!’

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: [with high pitch mocking voice] ‘Good morning dear sun!’

Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: …and the sun answered, ‘Good morning dear Erich!’ At afternoon Erich sees the sun again and says, ‘Good day dear sun’ And the sun says: ‘Good day dear Erich!’ After work Honecker goes back to the window and says, ‘Good evening dear sun!’ But the sun doesn’t answer! So he says again, ‘Good evening dear sun, what’s wrong?’ And the sun answered and said, ‘Oh, kiss my ass, I’m in the West now!’


Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: Name?

[becoming deadly serious]

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: Rank? Department?

Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [frightened] Me? Stigler, 2nd Lieutenant Alex Stigler. Department M.

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: [almost sighing] Don’t need to tell you what this means for your career, what you just did.

Unterleutnant Axel Stigler: [scared, slightly angry] Please Lieutenant Colonel… I just…

Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz: [angry] You just mocked our party! That was political agitation! Surely just the tip of the iceberg! I am going to report this to the minister’s office.

– “The Lives of Others”

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Some interesting stuff to look into: Frontline – United States of Secrets: New Yorker article of October 20, 2014 on Filmmaker Laura Poitras: Julie Angwin’s book, “Dragnet Nation”: