We’re all East Germans now… 4 December 2011

When I was growing up in the 1980s being described as having ‘Stasi tendencies’ was considered an insult. Now it seems to be a key plank of all social networking platforms and interactions.

It’s been a very bad few weeks – perhaps even a bad year – for the privacy rights of the individual against large scale providers of electronic services and equipment. For our examples we should look towards the rise and rise of Facebook and the recent Federal Trade Commission statements about it, the presence of tracking software in a large segment of the smartphone market, and the alleged weaknesses within Itunes that supposedly allowed access to the users computer over a three year period.

The Federal Trade Commission in the States recently said that Facebook had made claims about its privacy policies that were “unfair and deceptive, and violated federal law.” Now it is the turn of European bureaucrats (who have a much keener sense of these issues) to investigate the firm, which boasts 800million users and which is reportedly about to float itself for a reputed $100bn.

I think Facebook has become ‘too big to fail’, or too big to regulate. And even in Google’s attempts to sink the monolithic site, it has flourished rather than been dented. Thomas Rid, of this parish, predicted Facebook would fall to the joys of Google +. I still cannot see anyone I know using it. So, what Facebook does is clearly important. Its population is double the size of the European Union.

Taken from The Guardian newspaper:

“The FTC said Facebook made eight specific promises that it did not keep.

In December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private – such as their friends list – was made public. They did so without warning or approval in advance.

Facebook said that company’s apps would have access only to the information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users’ personal data – data the apps didn’t need, said the FTC.

Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with Friends Only. In fact, selecting Friends Only did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.

Facebook had a Verified Apps programme, and claimed it certified the security of participating apps. It didn’t.

Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.

Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.

Facebook claimed that it complied with the US–EU Safe Harbour Framework that governs data transfer between the US and the European Union. It didn’t.”


The site’s founder said that the firm had made a few ‘high profile mistakes’, but that its record was good. I have no reason to doubt him.

My contention is that these privacy failings are also our fault. Mine included. To a large extent we (collectively) have sprayed our personal information all over a public space that will never forget. My Facebook contacts can never un-wind that photograph of them drunk as a skunk and up to no good, nor the update where they have mistakenly or unwisely berated someone. Every click, buzz and whistle has gone into the great PRO in the sky (or California)…we all got sucked into the idea that this was the democratisation of technology: our own ability, ‘yes, me.. sat in the backendofnowhere’, to find a global outlet, but actually, it seems we’ve just made it easier to advertisers to reach receptive audiences, and worse, easy for those who are concerned with beiging our politics and our engagement in society.

My concern is a wider pattern of behaviour that has changed the character of how an individual interacts with the social sphere. It has nothing to do with ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’ – that’s the last resort of the intellectually weak. It’s about our rights as individuals to bugger off for a drive into the countryside, without being tracked, traced and logged by a growing number of firms and agencies who have no business knowing that I’ve taken my car for a gentile spin. The onus should be on these institutions to prove the need to know (and a real need, not just an idle or commercial curiosity), not my need to go to herculean lengths to avoid being tracked and traced, and logged.  I genuinely have nothing to hide when I go for my utopian gentile spin in the car into the countryside, I’d just like to indulge in glorious anonymity, like I did in the mid-1990s when I was lent the keys to my mum’s car. It’s not that long ago. The changes amount to a paradigm shift. We’re all East Germans now.

If we think of a chronological taxonomy:

  • 1950s – no mobiles, no GPS, telephones tapped of the very few security concerns, post intercepted of the same. Manual record of those travelling abroad of concern.
  • 1960s/70s/80s – greater phone use and therefore of interception. Logging of international travel.
  • 90s – beginning to get intercepts on fax, email, mobile.
  • 00s – as per wikileaks’ interesting and ‘essential read’ collection of files. As Julian Assange rightly said (and I don’t often say that) for people who own smartphones and use webmail, we’re all ‘screwed’.

It’s the same point. It’s a paradigm shift, and as technology has moved on from the telephone, to the fax, to the mobile, to desk-based email, to electronic blurts on the move, so the surveillance industry has moved on too.

But I’ll make you some 20:20 hindsight counterfactual predictions.. or postdictions, if you like..

If the surveillance technology and techniques had existed at these respective times:

  • Women would not have had the vote in the UK at the time they did (or anywhere near it, even with the war effort gleaming behind them).
  • The civil rights movement would have been severely hampered.
  • The liberation movements in the developing world could have been put down.
  • The ANC would have been stopped in its tracks.
  • More controversially, in terms of whether this is a good or bad thing, the UK miners’ strikes of the mid-80s would have been over very quickly. I mention them, because they stick out in my mind as a first big news story I can remember. That and the Falklands.


Now, as I say, whether you think these are good or bad examples is moot. My point is that that some of these events are considered ‘universal goods’. Female franchise, and racial equality are considered to be good, by a large segment of world opinion.. and yet the chances are, if they sprung up today and had not already been tackled, they could be quite effectively curtailed. The prospect of this curtailment is only a good thing if we think we’ve reached the end-point of the development of man. If this is ‘the end of history’ then all is fine. If we think, however, that the rise of China might throw a spanner into our euro-centric dream, or that the development of our careers from those of our parents (stable over an entire career length potentially) to short-term contracts, fluidity and insecurity might also be a, er, development, then we might want to reserve the right to, you know, have a say.

And it would be easy to misread that desire to ‘have a say’ as being somehow radical. But it isn’t. It’s saying that we’re all individuals and, as a great nation has it, we’re all created equally. That same great nation realised that there was a difference between being a subject, and being a citizen. The great democratisation of technology and the internet made us all ‘global citizens’, only it didn’t. It made us subjects. As Adam Curtis put it sarcastically, we’re ‘all watched over by machines of loving grace’.

The wikileaks spy files, and their mainstream journalist partners, make strong contentions that the tracking of phones and phone usage has been used to do actual harm to democracy campaigners within countries with repressive regimes. It’s not just about the delivery of services or technology, it’s a very real assistance of maintaining poor political status quos. Just because Britain is a mostly affluent, friendly and fine place to live (and therefore we can be more sanguine), doesn’t mean it’s fine for this technology to have been in Gadhafi’s Libya, or in other parts of the Middle East, as highlighted by wikileaks.

So, three cheers for us.

The first is in falling for the line about the democratisation of electronics. The emailing phone certainly has liberated everyone from working too hard or bringing their work home with them, and it certainly hasn’t created undeletable data trails that can be used for all sorts of unintended consequences. Most classes of criminal conviction can be spent in the UK (ie. officially forgotten after a certain amount of time with no more criminal behaviour), but data-trails are never spent.. beware the misplaced thought.

The second is in allowing a system to be created that would make the toughest Stasi agent sit back, and think ‘that’s madness’. And we did it, having defeated communists who were the past masters of this kind of thinking.

We won.

And then we put the ball in our own net several times, just for the sheer hell of it.

And the third is in having forgotten what it was to be an individual. It wasn’t in having a haircut at school that could get you suspended, nor was in it having a novelty tattoo, or wearing a t-shirt with a logo on it, or in thinking that you were the only one who really understood the lyrics of the levellers. No, it was in understanding that your rights, as an individual, were protected by the state. It gave you the top cover to be an individual within certain neatly proscribed guidelines (the law). It wasn’t that you, the individual had to be subsumed into the state (or some kind of odd public-private mash-up of official lines and views). Because not only is that not good for the individual. It’s really bad for the state too.(And it should be noted that the French, yes them, have stoically resisted the Edvige system of societal monitoring now for nearly 4years.. commendable backbone). Automatons do not do innovation. Not evolution, innovation. Proper, world beating innovation; they do safe and sound. And safe and sound is going to quickly see those who allow for innovation swallow them up (that’s probably a separate, but connected point).

So, I don’t see a conspiracy. Well, only partly. It’s a surrender too; we have given of ourselves too freely. We have provided photos to allow companies to develop face recognition software, we have given our views to freely, to allow our personalities and preferences to be too easily tracked. So, to mangle Robert Taber’s phrase, ‘war of the flea’, I shall be deleting myself off facebook very shortly. I shall then breathe a slight sigh of relief, that having caught up with all the people I wanted to catch up with, I’m now done with it. And I can stop adding to the enormous facebook databases, knowing that if rather a large number of millions joined me, we might stop giving our data for free, so that a rather commendably enterprising young man gets stinking rich. We might also remember what it was to be individuals, and also to stop hovering over the profiles of others, not interacting, but just watching (you know who you are Hayward’s Heath!).

We are all East Germans now.

But we don’t need to be.


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