What if everyone were a suspect?
That was not hard to imagine this week at the Digital-Life-Design conference, where talk of the U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs overshadowed wonkier tech topics including wearable devices, whether Nest will keep its user data private now that it’s part of Google, and a plan to save the world using mobile phones.
You see, spying is kind of a sensitive topic in the reunified Germany. Before the reunification in 1990, citizens of Communist East Germany grappled with spying on one’s own friends, family and colleagues, under orders by the Stasi secret police.
Anke Domscheit-Berg, a German political activist and politician, aimed to make sure this week’s gathering of technology, arts and intellectual cognoscenti reflected on the darker, earlier era in pre-unified Germany. She recalled what it was like living under the Stasi. Now 46, she was a 21-year old art student when the Berlin Wall fell. Interviewed on stage at DLD by Jeff Jarvis, the American professor and commentator, she described how she was blackmailed by the Stasi into spying on fellow students — they implied that if she did not comply, her father, a government employee, would lose his job. She had come to their attention after writing a letter complaining about the reliability of deliveries from the East German post office.
It’s an example of how benign information can, in the wrong circumstances, be turned against you by a government. And as much as that government — indeed any government — might defend its actions as being for the benefit and protection of the people now, it’s not hard to imagine a moment in the future when the circumstances might change.
“Every information can be used against you, about your passions, about your fears, about relationships you have. This is something we must remember,” Domscheit-Berg said.
It’s not just an American problem. She thinks the Germany security agencies are also “out of control.”
Knowing surveillance is going on is enough to make people think twice about saying otherwise reasonable things in public. When she started a petition drive against a system of secret prisons that the U.S. has set up around the world as part of the war on terror, Domscheit-Berg heard privately from a lot of people who agreed with her but who were afraid to take a stand. They wanted to be able to visit the U.S. one day and didn’t want to be denied a visa. “When you use mass surveillance, the surveilled people are not free. It’s as simple as that.”
Domscheit-Berg said that Germans view this issue more passionately. “It is our historic responsibility because it’s our national history, which makes us so sensitive.”
It’s worth noting that in Internet and political activism circles, Domsheit-Berg is one half of a European power couple. Her husband is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the former spokesman for Wikileaks who had a very public falling out with the organization and destroyed thousands of documents that it had intended to leak.
She’s also running for political office. She’s standing for a seat in the European Union Parliament representing the Pirate Party. Why stand for office? “I believe still enough in democracy to change it from the inside,” she said.
Here’s a video of her session from yesterday.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.