Former East German Stasi Officer Expresses Admiration For, Dismay At US Government's Surveillance Capabilities

from the NSA's-to-do-list:-'impress-Stasi'...-check! dept

While Germany’s security agencies seem to be impressed with the size of our surveillance coverage, the German people are understandably a bit more perturbed. The divided Germany of the not-too-distant past saw many people on the eastern side of the Wall spend a great deal of time being surveilled by their countrymen, and recent developments echo that past all too well.

A former Stasi member, Wolfgang Schmidt, was recently interviewed by the McClatchy news service. Unsurprisingly, there’s a hint of envy in his discussion of the US government’s surveillance infrastructure.

“You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.

As was pointed out late last year, the US government has more data on the average American citizen than the East German Stasi, a division created solely to surveil German citizens. This was noted before the recent leaks, meaning what’s been gathered by the NSA, FBI, etc. is exponentially greater than previously estimated.

The Stasi’s surveillance was much more targeted than our current efforts, though this was mainly due to technical limitations, rather than out of any concern for German citizens.

In those days, his department was limited to tapping 40 phones at a time, he recalled. Decide to spy on a new victim and an old one had to be dropped, because of a lack of equipment. He finds breathtaking the idea that the U.S. government receives daily reports on the cellphone usage of millions of Americans and can monitor the Internet traffic of millions more.

“So much information, on so many people,” he said.

Today, there are no such limitations. Everything can be gathered, stored and sorted through at these agencies’ convenience. How much has been collected still remains a mystery. FOIA requests sent to the NSA attempting to discover what’s included have been denied, with the agency predictably stating that confirming, denying or releasing any information would do “exceedingly grave damage to national security.”

Former East Germans, however, have been granted access to their personal Stasi files. Reinhard Weisshuhn, a political activist and foreign policy advisor, obtained his recently. Over 15 years, the Stasi put together 9,000 pages on his activities. Stefan Wolfe, who curates the East German Museum, also had a look at his file and found it to be mostly comprised of routine, everyday life.

“When the wall fell, I wanted to see what the Stasi had on me, on the world I knew,” he said. “A large part of what I found was nothing more than office gossip, the sort of thing people used to say around the water cooler about affairs and gripes, the sort of things that people today put in emails or texts to each other.

The author of this McClatchy piece refers to the Stasi’s obsessive detailing of day-to-day activities as the “banality of evil.” When an agency makes an effort to track everything about someone, actions or words that normally mean nothing are attributed significance by those performing the surveillance. “It has to mean something, otherwise we wouldn’t be tracking it.” But grabbing everything means ending up with a whole lot of nothing, as Wolfe points out.

“The lesson,” he added, “is that when a wide net is cast, almost all of what is caught is worthless. This was the case with the Stasi. This will certainly be the case with the NSA.”

Even the former Stasi agent, despite his begrudging admiration, finds the US surveillance efforts troubling.

Schmidt, 73, who headed one of the more infamous departments in the infamous Stasi, called himself appalled. The dark side to gathering such a broad, seemingly untargeted, amount of information is obvious, he said.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.”

You can’t justify harvesting this much data if you’re not going to use it. And if you can’t find anything worth using it for, you’ll connect the all-important “dots” until it resembles something… anything. Anything that departs even minimally from the norm becomes suspicious. Using encryption? Probably a threat. Parking too far away from a hotel? Potential terrorist. Find the local water a little tough to drink? Let’s get that file started. Unwittingly engage an undercover FBI agent in conversation? Chances are you’ll soon be converted into a terrorist.

The US, after years of acting as the world’s policeman, has finally revealed itself to instead be the unmarked van that’s constantly parked just down the world’s street. (And the unexplained “clicking noise” on every US citizens’ phone call…) It has the sympathy of several of the world’s governments, many of which are directly benefitting from the US’s surveillance infrastructure or hoping to construct one of their own. But the citizens of the world are more wary, especially those that who’ve already been subjected to intrusive, non-stop surveillance by their own governments.

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Comments on “Former East German Stasi Officer Expresses Admiration For, Dismay At US Government's Surveillance Capabilities”

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40 Comments
Eddie says:

Re: FIS owns NSA

I can’t exactly remember, but some years back in Switzerland (please don’t think they are the holy cow of democracy) there was an issue with ballot machines. But what I can remember is the lightning that struck me saying “something is wrong on the story and not all is said”. I then had the impression it was an issue of manipulating the outcome of the voting. The machines where removed and new one placed to the satisfaction of all. It was never know – of course – if the voting went smooth without any (online) tampering.
I recall a personal issue with my Twitter account (don’t judge me know without ever knowing my background and having walked in my shoes). I was stunned since 2008 that my Follower base is more or less the same since ever despite I have several new followers, sometimes 10 a month. I contacted Twitter and they confirmed nothing unusual. I leave the thinking and conclusions to each individual.
My take is this; the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) of Switzerland is much more sophisticated and efficient than the NSA. Therefore I pretend that FIS owns the NSA (only a slight sarcasm in my words).
Just a hint about myself and what I am talking about you should read up at Wikipedia on: ‘secret files scandal’ and do your own researches on it.
BTW; the Stasi in the former DDR and the case of ‘secret files scandal’ is very much the same except with one difference (at that time) – [1] the DDR was a Communist country and Switzerland still claims to be the oldest Democracy and [2] the volume of monitored citizens – in the DDR over 70% and Switzerland 10%. But the way has being very similar.

RyanNerd (profile) says:

I Want My Country Back

I was born in the mid sixties. As a teenager I grew up with pride in my country knowing that we were free from the oppressions of communism and governmental overreach. The Soviets were the enemy in a cold war. Today I wonder what country I live in. My country seems to view it?s own citizens as the enemy now. I no longer recognize America for what it once was. Here are some stark contrasts to the ?red threat? when I was young and how our country is behaving today.

It was the Soviet?s that secretly spied on it?s own people and criminalized those that the government didn?t like. Not whistleblowers on the NSA.

It was the communists that would gather information on telephone calls and communications on it?s own citizens without a warrant and without probable cause. Not the NSA spying on it?s own citizens.

It was Pravda the Russian state run newspaper that suppressed accurate reporting and was used as a propaganda tool. Not a Fox News reporter being accused by the US government of espionage for doing his job.

It was the wealthy, privileged and powerful in the Kremlin who forced their politics onto the people. Not the IRS targeting political groups who have views that differ from the current regime.

Cover ups only happened in places like Chernobyl. Not at American consulates in Benghazi

Twisting of the press and the denial of the Holodomor famine only happened in Communist controlled Russia. Not with the US Department of Justice?s massive data gathering of AP reporters phone records, and having their emails monitored.

Secret puppet courts only existed in communist countries. Not in the US where over 160 witnesses are expected to testify against Bradley Manning in a secret military court.

It was only Soviet leaders that could murder it?s own citizens without probable cause and without due process. Not the United States using drones against its own citizens.

It was only in Soviet Russia that there was no constitution which allowed the government to wield absolute power. Not the so called Patriot Act that subverts due process, probable cause and can force indefinite detainment by just an accusation of treason or terrorism.

It was the KGB that could ?stop and frisk? any citizen at any time without probable cause. Not the NY police department.

It was the communists that had armed troops in the streets and performed military style house to house searches. Not in Boston Massachusetts.

It would only be communists that would claim that people complaining about their situation are terrorists. Not the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation accusing their citizens of being terrorists when they complained about their water quality.

Only in Soviet Russia no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling police roamed the streets and the citizens watched as their comrades were torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes. Not in Bakersfield California where nine officers and one police dog were ?needed? to subdue an allegedly drunk man who died after being beaten repeatedly by the police. Then the witnesses to this event had their cameras and cell phones confiscated as ?evidence? and these were returned to them with the videos being deleted.

It was the Politburo that created vague laws making simple common actions criminal. Not the CFAA that makes it a federal crime to ?access a computer without authorization or in a way that exceeds authorization? thus making it possible for prosecutors to jail a person who violates a website?s terms of service.

It was in Soviet Russia where a person was guilty and had to prove their innocence. Not America where there are so many unknown and ridiculous laws that possessing a lobster of a certain size is a federal crime.

In Soviet Russia you feared everything because any action could be twisted as against the law if government didn?t like you. Not in America where ignorance of the law is impossible to avoid because lawmakers themselves are not really sure how many criminal laws there are.

It was the KGB did not require any recording of the testimony of the witnesses they were interviewing. Not in America where the FBI?s no recording policy allows for the statements of those they interview to be falsified, editorialized or reinterpreted.

In Soviet Russia everything was owned by the state. Not in America where when the IRS was audited for inappropriate expenses they then claimed they could not find the receipts.

In the Kremlin was where everything was kept secret and there was no transparency. Not in America where the current administration claimed to be the most transparent administration in History and has in fact become the exact opposite.

out_of_the_blue says:

Re: I Want My Country Back -- and tiny lobsters!

You spoiled an excellent rant with this laughable “possessing a lobster of a certain size is a federal crime.” — Game laws are ancient and necessary, trying to ensure a continual supply. No one’s rights are violated by this well-intended prohibition: to the contrary, it almost certainly guarantees the “right” to consume lobsters in the future. So I can only conclude that you’re a wacky “libertarian” who thinks that a “free market” will magically self-regulate instead of see the historical fact that greedy capitalists exploit “free” resources to exhaustion without regard to future consequences.

[Disclaimer: I am not in any way connected with the lobster cartels, nor even a customer: won’t even eat those big red bugs.]

RyanNerd (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Want My Country Back -- and tiny lobsters!

OOTB:

I invited you once before to be a part of my satinic ritual but you never did tell me your address:
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130531/19495123281/researcher-tries-to-connect-violence-video-games-during-murder-trial-gets-destroyed-during-cross-examination.shtml#c227

As I’m sure you already know, but your trolling tiny brain does not allow you to accept is that I was making the point that stupid laws or even well meaning laws can be perverted and used as a weapon. Here are the links to why I brought up lobsters:

http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/16/3372
https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130613/12180423457/if-youve-got-nothing-to-hide-youve-actually-got-plenty-to-hide.shtml

A Monkey with Attitude says:

Re: Re: I Want My Country Back -- and tiny lobsters!

Way to find one point to nit-pick, just so you can say you dont agree… Yet we all wonder why we have the problems we have with Governement (the fact you dismiss a whole based on one point)

The parts that divide are deep, exactly how they set it up, and until ppl are willing to find points of agreement instead of disagreement things will get worse…

Why fight your enemies when you can have them all fight each other?

Jason says:

Re: Re: Re: I Want My Country Back -- and tiny lobsters!

Actually many crustaceans are commonly referred to as bugs.

Most noteworthy are pill bugs aka the roly polie and the much nearer cousin of the lobster, the crawfish, which any self-respecting Cajun will, of course, refer to as a mudbug.

So yes, the guy IS being a nit-picky jerk, but then so are you, and so am I.

Thanks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I Want My Country Back -- and tiny lobsters!

The issue of liability for undersized lobsters, or similar breaches of law raises a real problem. It is reasonable to expect anyone who sets out to catch lobsters to find out any regulations and laws surrounding their capture. It is unreasonable to hold anyone else liable for the actions of whoever caught the lobster.

In general people should only be expected to check for laws that may affect activities that they carry out. However they should not be required to know every law and regulation about everything they purchase or are given. Obvious they cannot claim lack of knowledge of widely and frequently advertised, including via new stories, laws.

Don Wheelspi says:

Re: I Want My Country Back

The idea in the 1960s the Soviets were bad and the USA angelic is nonsense.

COINTELPRO was run by the FBI through 4 administrations with the express goal to bug, disrupt and destroy the reputations of many legit individuals and organizations, including Martin Luther King.

The irony of the current controversy is the government probably wants it NOT to be secret. The sort of record keeping Snowden revealed would only stop the stupidest of bad guys; but every KNOWING about it makes people more likely to self-censor and stay in line.

Here’s a hint: the news of the hour is almost always irrelevant and misdirection.

RyanNerd (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Want My Country Back

I actually agree with you. The US had many many civil liberty problems in the sixties: segregation being one of the best examples. Later, Watergate being an example of government corruption and deception.
My intention was more of a comparison that when constitutional principles are maintained and upheld then there is liberty. When these are not followed and a government is unfettered or subverts constitutional law then is when the citizens become fettered and restrained.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: I Want My Country Back

And what does the current USA have in common with the countries listed?

We have become Godless. Jesus says to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. The difference is that America used to follow this with tremendous positive results.

When I saw the movie “Emperor” I had forgotten that we actually forgave the Japanese Emperor and got him on our side to help rebuild Japan into what it is today. What a tremendous action that would NEVER happen with today’s administration.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: I Want My Country Back

The Nazis and the Soviets gave us perspective, at least someone to serve as an example of what not to be.

It didn’t always work to our favor: we became a more outwardly religious country (In God We Trust, One Nation Under God) juxtaposed to the Soviets’ willful irreligion. And now that pendulum has over swung, bringing church/state separation to question.

I hope (but don’t expect) we’ll recognize that we’ve gone too far and bounce back without things getting too conflagrative. On the other hand, the people on the top really like where they are and are bringing all assets to bear to preserve the security of their station.

RyanNerd (profile) says:

Re: Re: I Want My Country Back

I fear that, as conditions worsen, many will react to the failures of too much government by calling for even more government. Then there will be more and more lifeboats launched because fewer and fewer citizens know how to swim. Unlike some pendulums, political pendulums do not swing back automatically; they must be pushed. History is full of instances when people have waited in vain for pendulums to swing back.

– Neal A. Maxwell

Viktor with the K says:

Re: I Want My Country Back

Ryan,
I was born in USSR during the cold war period. Moved here to have the freedoms which we have dreamt of; freedom of speech, rights to bear arms, not to be searched etc…
It looks like this country is becoming the same as the soviet union.
Our liberties are slowly being eroded due to arrogance and lack of care.

I have to add that we cant just care about 1st or the 4th amendments and be arrogant about the other rights being infringed upon. Thats arrogance, this kind of attitude is the reason why we are loosing, compromising on our liberties and becoming what old Soviet Union used to be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I Want My Country Back

A wonderful sentiment but the US you think you remember, wasn’t like you thought it was then either.

You grew up while the US engaged in an illegitimate war based on a false causus belli, you were a teenager when your country was vetoing a UN motion that all countries should obey international law. You grew up in a time when your CIA trained people from dictatorships all over the place in how to torture people. You grew up at a time when your country funded terrorists in an attempt to overthrow democratically elected countries.

If you don’t recognise your country nowadays, it’s because you were too young to know better and never really knew it at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

the truly sad thing about all this surveillance stuff is that all those that were under it wanted out, all governments that were not doing it (as far as we knew) were condemning the likes of East Germany for doing it, stating how it was a violation of every human beings right to privacy and freedom as well as free speech. what do we find now? the very same governments of USA, UK etc that were condemning the likes of East Germany, not only doing the same tings they were condemning over, they are doing it to such a degree that it was unheard of! governments would have been totally condemned if they were doing things to this degree then, but today, the people are expected to just bend over, not only then take a rogering, but ask if they have had enough! we are heading for serious trouble people. if it happens, it wont be something that can be stopped or reversed sitting around a table where 99% of the negotiations are kept secret!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well there is the lack of gas chambers…. umm I mean,

Well there is the lack of mass murder using gas chambers
and the use of ovens to dispose of the bodies etc.

And yes a great many people of one minority are imprisoned out of all proportion with their percentage of the population, but even with that, not all of that minority are being rounded up and sent to forced labour camps.
Even if far too high a number are being sent off to profit making prisons where they may have to do forced labour.
But that still isn’t the same thing and not even close.

The US is a deeply unpleasant country and one any right minded person would be perfectly understandably experience shame to be associated with, but it isn’t just yet quite like the Nazis.

out_of_the_blue says:

But don't forget corporations such as Google and Facebook!

This read fine when replacing “government”: ?It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won?t be used,? he said. ?This is the nature of secret corporate organizations. The only way to protect the people?s privacy is not to allow the corporations to collect their information in the first place.?

No one can plausibly deny that Google and other corporations are part of the NSA — that part of the picture is consistently left out by Mike and minions — but even if were not, the warning above applies: they’re not spending money to gather and collate that information to help you, but to control you. Corporations currently operate in a lawless arena where they can violate privacy rights just as much as gov’t, but we the people can easily change that because corporations are fictions which exist only by permission.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But don't forget corporations such as Google and Facebook!

Actually agree. There is a lack of reasonable limitations when it comes to data collection, retention and usage digitally, whether it be for corporations or governments.

Rights do not exist on the internet, just as limitations do not exist. It is just how things work at the moment. Both rights and limitations are needed in the future.

With the Cookie directive and InfoSOC in EU, I am however starting to question the ability of politicians to bring the needed balance into the field…
Those directives are forged by a certain man on a bad day.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: But don't forget corporations such as Google and Facebook!

There is a huge difference in data usage as well, Google uses it to feed algorithms to decide what adverts to try and show you, and if the algorithm is wrong, you ignore the adverts.
The security services use algorithms to decide who to target for imprisonment or worse. Their should be a person reviewing the algorithmic decision, but this is not a reliable way of detecting the algorithms mistakes. Further manual searches are used to find evidence of wrong doing.
This Article is an example of why government data gathering is so dangerous, they are not competent in evaluating the data they get once someone is brought to their attention.

Carlo Vitale says:

Re: Yes I remember

Why would the US Gov;t hire Nazi Scientists after WWII, to improve the US rocket research and nuclear program? Because they needed the "Scientific Help" and did nt hesitate to get it, regardless of Past Questionable affiliations, political and otherwise. Frogs behave the same on both sides of the pond !

Anonymous Coward says:

“It was the KGB that could ?stop and frisk? any citizen at any time without probable cause. Not the NY police department.”

You don’t know shit do you.

SQF is what turned NYC into a city where you could live without being mugged by melanin enriched savages. There’s nothing wrong with cops frisking those who actually commit the ajority of crimes in the city.

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