"More than machinery, we need humanity."

The Stasi Agent in Your Pocket

Begin overly simplistic plot summary: in the film The Lives of Others a playwright in East Berlin is monitored by Stasi agents (the Stasi were the secret police in the GDR). Suspected of being engaged in dissident action the playwright has his movements monitored, his apartment bugged, his neighbors intimidated all so that the Stasi agents can determine what he is up to.

Watching the film the viewer is struck by many emotions, and while it may not be the main response that the film is trying to solicit, the viewer may find themselves drawing another odd reaction: observing somebody’s every move and eavesdropping on their every word takes a lot of work.

The Stasi agents (and every other secret police group everywhere) probably wished that there were some easier way. Some way for people to go around willingly watching and recording all of their own actions…

I bet you see where I’m going with this.

As the ACLU reports (full article: here): “Last fall, officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seized an iPhone from the bedroom of a suspect in a drug investigation. In a single data extraction session, ICE collected a huge array of personal data from the phone. Among other information, ICE obtained:

  • call activity
  • phone book directory information
  • stored voicemails and text messages
  • photos and videos
  • apps
  • eight different passwords
  • 659 geolocation points, including 227 cell towers and 403 WiFi networks with which the cell phone had previously connected.”

Zounds. It should be noted that the case in question (the one above) involves a search of a phone that was made after ICE obtained a search warrant. And yet, the article goes on to explain that such “searches are becoming ever easier for law enforcement officers to conduct,” and it remains unclear (at least in some states) whether or not police really need a search warrant to search a person’s phone.

Now this case may seem a little bit odd. After all, if you are not suspect in a drug investigation then you have nothing to worry about right? Well…maybe…until you get arrested. Ever gone to a protest march where people, who did not want or plan on getting arrested, were?

Locations, passwords, contacts, private messages, preferences, all of this information may seem like it would not be useful to somebody else, until suddenly it is. The playwright in The Lives of Others (at least at the start) was not suspected of much more than dissidence, and the history of secret police is filled with attempts to silence (or at least spy upon) dissidents, radicals, and activists. What are they doing? Who are they talking to? Where are they going? And so forth.

In the book What Every Radical Should Know About State Repression, the radical writer Victor Serge writes at length about discoveries in the archives of the Okhrana (the secret police in Russia before the Russian Revolution). Serge describes mountains of evidence that had been obtained by the Okhrana through spying on any who dared oppose the tsar.  And – as with the aforementioned film – it is clear that a government must expend a lot of resources to gather such information. But, again, much less effort is needed if people are spying on themselves.

As the ACLU writes: “the type of data stored on a smartphone can paint a near-complete picture of even the most private details of someone’s personal life. Call history, voicemails, text messages and photographs can provide a catalogue of how—and with whom—a person spends his or her time.”

You probably wouldn’t dream of constantly lugging around a file cabinet filled with all of your personal information (including the stuff you would not want everybody to know). It would be big, heavy, and what would happen should that file cabinet fall into the hands of somebody else!?

You have that file cabinet. It’s called your smartphone.

Please be smart about how you use it.



About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “The Stasi Agent in Your Pocket

  1. Pingback: Douglass Rushkoff Quits Facebook (surprising nobody) | LibrarianShipwreck

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  4. Pingback: “More than machinery we need humanity” – The NSA, Verizon, Prism, and You | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2013 by in Activism, Impending Doom, Legal, Luddism, Smartphones, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , , , , , .

Ne'er do wells



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