A recent article in Wired denigrates any comparison that one might make between the US’s NSA and the Stasi of the former communist East. This is wise thing to do so, but disappoints because it fails to explore the fundamental differences which exist between the two countries.
It is fashionable to take the NSA to task for its obtrusive and invasive mass data collection that sometimes borders on being pernicious, but the fact that its policies can be exposed, debated and potentially reined in by a democratic system is a point overlooked by the author of the Wired article. So realistically comparing the two spy agencies is grossly misleading, notwithstanding Chancellor Angela Merkel’s characterization of the NSA tapping of her phone as “Stasi-like.”
The article does point out that neither organization’s activities are secret, though the Stasi was often referred to as the secret police. The Stasi were renowned for their ubiquitous spying, and relied on the efforts of 1.6% of the population for information on potential targets. It was government-sponsored spying on such a scale that would have children reporting their parents and spouses spying on each other to curry favor with the agency, and it affected every segment of society and the very fabric of life in East Germany because its power was based on fear, intimidation and distrust – with millions involved in its web. The NSA has no such apparatus, and only thousands, not millions on its payroll.
The democratic climate in the US is vastly different from that in East Germany, and serves as a bulwark for freedom of speech. The Constitution has safeguards for the public which, though often challenged by NSA practices, resist its overreach. US citizens have the opportunity to rail against its activities and hopefully curtail any abuses. This would be unheard of in East Germany where no mechanism existed or was even considered in order to curb the Stasi. The Stasi could determine the path of individuals’ lives – be it obtaining employment, attending a university or securing an apartment. In some cases whether you lived or died was in the balance. For all their surveillance capabilities, the NSA doesn’t control citizen’s lives.
This doesn’t mean that the citizenry should not be aware of the potential danger of an agency like the NSA acquiring more power. It’s just that there are too many impediments to the NSA – a free press and freedom of speech among them. Indeed, much of what we know about the NSA and the public’s ire is owed to the revelations of Edward Snowden. You can rest assured that if a Snowden had emerged in East Germany he would have been silenced by the Stasi. He probably would not be living in exile free to tweak them. He probably would not be alive at all- not nearly two years after the fact.
Another major factor to consider is the mission-purpose or rationale employed by each organization. The Stasi were determined to corral domestic dissenters and preserve a totalitarian state. The NSA is charged with gathering information to keep the public secure from foreign threats. But that doesn’t mean the populace should be acquiescent or complicit in the methods employed by the NSA -especially in this digital age where information is at their fingertips and spying technology is so advanced.
While the Stasi had to compile sometimes tens of thousands of pages of hand-produced documents on targets and its archives comprised miles of corridors, the spying business is much more streamlined and efficient nowadays. And the information it has gleaned is often no more provocative than can be found on one’s social media sites.
But the danger of information abuses always exists, and the public must remain vigilant. The billions of bits of information collected annually by agencies such as the NSA possess the seeds of individuals’ privacy destruction if they were misused or fell into the wrong hands. No, the NSA is not hated or feared by the public the way the Stasi was and the mechanism exists in the US democracy to thwart agency abuses which didn’t exist in East Germany under communism.
As always, Stan’s views are his own, and do not reflect those of the rest of the BestVPN staff.