You Know Who Else Collected Metadata? The Stasi

from the compare-and-contrast dept

Republished from ProPublica under a Creative Commons license.

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. You can view the complete files at ProPublica.

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Comments on “You Know Who Else Collected Metadata? The Stasi”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Just a reminder:

But even an ex-Stasi member found the extent of current US spying to be overboard, as covered in a previous article:

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.?

deepelemblues says:

Re: Just a reminder:

Ex-Stasi department head “appalled” at US.

Now if the man bit the dog, that would be a story.

And a broken clock is still right twice a day. And he is. But still, ex-Stasi department head. If he were anything but appalled at 90% of what the US does, I’d think he was probably an old double agent.

TM says:

Re: Just a reminder:

The quote regarding “the height of na?vet?” is not only right, it’s right on many levels. Those collecting data may have a specific, benign (or even beneficial) goal, but nobody?not the collectors or the subjects?can know what will happen to those data in the future. In medical research, patient data are “anonymized” before being presented. As our ability to collect and analyze metadata has improved, it’s been demonstrated that even anonymized data can be linked back to specific individuals.

It’s a telling side-note that Austria and Germany do not allow the collection of initials or birthdays in clinical trials. This leads to some problems for those in the pharma industry and academia, and most assume it’s arbitrary. What most don’t realize is that the Austrians and Germans understand better than most the power of metadata.

One Tom too Many (profile) says:

Note of Interest

Having worked as an intel analyst before, one of the programs that the U.S. gov’t actually likes to use, when implemented correctly, is a program called Analyst Notebook:
The program can store a surprising amount of data with many different dimensions and connections to it. (Many on Many connections make for wonderful tools) The problem is getting a good analyst to eyeball it and then take it from being data to intelligence. And, just like any database, it is only as good as the data that has been THOUGHTFULLY put into it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: so does

While I think opting in (opting out doesn’t really work unless logged in) should be the standard and I dis-like Google for its practices ,Google can not detain arrest, or use my information against me. The NSA can and eventually will ,there’s no other reason to collect that much information unless you plan on using it in some way or form . Google can however sell or give my information to the NSA . Both the NSA and Google have pried into our lives and chipped away personal privacy’s for long enough and it needs to stop.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: so does

“(opting out doesn’t really work unless logged in)”

When we say Google is optional, we aren’t talking about Google’s opt-out mechanism. We’re talking about a combination of not using Google services and blocking access to Google’s servers. Logging in doesn’t enter into it.

But, you’re right — opt-out is is the wrong way around. Everything should be opt-in. But opt-out is better than nothing.

Guardian says:

the technique was first done by a NAZI

google and find out whose in charge of the nazi spies and you will see…what and how it was done and then apply to the nsa, and friends.

My question to all you whom think nazis are great….do you really want to live in that type a world…cause one day……they might come for YOU

Anonymous Coward says:

strange how the Stasi were condemned for the collection of everything they could from everyone they could, yet because this time it’s the USA and the UK doing the exact same thing, it’s supposed to be accepted as being ok, as being fine, as being for the good of all! what absolute shit! this shows exactly what hypocrites these two governments and perhaps others, are! it is not alright to spy on everyone, everywhere! end of story! and those who are constantly trying to condone these actions are as much a part of the Stasi proper as the real people were! it’s disgusting, it’s disgraceful! it isn’t even for anything like the protection of the people! it’s so that the planet can be ruled by corporations, by the 1%, (who think that everyone should be slaves to them and pay for every single thing they get), who are trying to introduce this with the backing of LEO, making a Police State!! it has got to be stopped!!

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“strange how the Stasi were condemned for the collection of everything they could”

Not just the Stasi. The Chinese, too — remember the (excellent) movie “Red Square”? They set up China as an oppressive surveillance state by showing all the CCTV cameras they had around. And don’t forget the Soviet Union.

We have become yet another example of the truism “you become what you hate.”

NotClauswitz says:

The STASI had help

Estimates are that one in 6.5 ordinary East Germans were “voluntarily” abetting the STASI data collection, including children – for a candy-bar, a pack of smokes, hairspray – things that were otherwise hard to get, but wouldn’t appear too out of the ordinary or hard to explain if you had them. I have a picture of a small crowd of people at an even in East Berlin, if you count every seventh person and say “Spy” then it gets a bit much, and what they were reporting on was each other. Now idiots do it for free on Facebook, or for something as insubstantial and meaningless as a “Like.”

InsaneSanity says:

Smurfs are Blue

Odd, but news of NSA “surveillance”(watching porn and playing games” has failed ot deter the U.S. population as a whole from deleting electronics from their daily lives or utilizing convenient electronics without protection … kinda like the AIDS virus not motivating the population to use protection … So, why has the population not changed their behaviors? Why is Google still the top search agent? Why have these NSA “reports” not detered people from downloading apps, playing angry birds, using cell phones, texting scathing messages, sending emails, etc. Am I the only person who has deteled and stopped using everything except for an old laptop with its tor search engine to read CNN and some blogs? Am I missing something? I don’t get it …

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Smurfs are Blue

“Am I missing something?”

I suspect that most people who use the internet to a great extent have deeply incorporated it into their daily lives. Cutting themselves off from it would be a huge, painful, lifestyle change. People don’t like huge, painful, lifestyle changes. It’s a lot easier just to tell yourself “well, I have nothing to hide” and ignore the whole issue.

Yes, it’s selling out your neighbors and counrymen for the sake of your own comfort, but that’s human nature in action.

william c wesley says:


Its a mistake to assume all human activities are to be taken at face value, the point of all such surveillance/detention based organizations is to keep their members employed, its an profit making enterprise, the inquisition was one such enterprise,those agents had a job instead of being unemployed. the holocaust another such operation, victims assets were seized, the cultural revolution was another, the prison industrial complex is fed by the drug war, another for profit operation, the NSA is channeling trillions into select pockets. If people can make money doing insanely destructive things they will go ahead and sign up for the money anyway, none of these institutions did one bit of long term good even for the parties that fostered them, the inquisition removed Spain as a world power, the holocaust weakened Germany, the cultural revolution delayed China’s ascendency, the NSAs unreasonable surveillance and the mass incarceration of the drug war are destroying the power of the United States, suspicion weakens a country, investing in the infrastructure of paranoia invariably devastates a country, that is how empires fall.

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