Privacy is a porous legal concept with an uneven history ranging from Justice Brandeis’s 1890 definition of “the right to be left alone” to the so-called constitutional right of privacy delineated by William O. Douglas and used by William J. Brennan to support the abortion license in Roe v. Wade.
Everyone should be concerned about the current surveillance state, not because privacy is an absolute but rather because it points to and safeguards something else even more basis and fundamental – human dignity.
Angela Merkel, next to Margaret Thatcher, is the most consequential elected female leader in European history. Born in Hamburg in 1954, Merkel grew up in East Germany where her father was a Lutheran pastor. She recently revealed that as a child she was approached by the infamous and much-feared Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst), the state security service of East Germany, who tried to recruit her to work for them. While she refused, she continued to live under the shadow of the world’s most repressive and invasive surveillance police state.
The Stasi, whose formal role was not defined in the legislation, was responsible for both domestic political surveillance and foreign espionage, and it was overseen by the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Its staff was at first quite small, and its chief responsibilities were counterintelligence against Western agents and the suppression of the last vestiges of Nazism. Soon, however, the Stasi became known for kidnapping former East German officials who had fled the country; many of those who were forcibly returned were executed.
The Stasi infiltrated every institution of society and every aspect of daily life, including even intimate personal and familial relationships. It accomplished this goal both through its official apparatus and through a vast network of informants and unofficial collaborators (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter), who spied on and denounced colleagues, friends, neighbours, and even family members.
In addition to domestic surveillance, the Stasi was also responsible for foreign surveillance and intelligence gathering through its Main Administration for Foreign Intelligence (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung). Its foreign espionage activities were largely directed against the West German government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
By the time the Berin Wall fell in 1989, the Stasi employed 102,000 people to snoop on a country of only 17 million.
The NSA police state points to a system of massive intrusion, with little restraint, and little interest in tracking actual terrorists. In a dangerous world where people of ill will plot to do harm to others, some surveillance capacity must be allowed. But it is by no means clear that the system presided over by Obama is either effective or morally justified.
When potential for the violation of civil rights and the abuse of privacy are mentioned – Obama says we should “Trust Him.” There might have been a time in America history when that response might have been sufficient. But the last two decades have witnessed the erosion of such trust. “Trust me” no longer works.
Given that in the name of national security, our phones, social networking, credit card activity, financial transactions, and emails are all being monitored, what should we expect in the future? Given that Obama has appointed himself judge and jury over the life of American citizens that he considers to be “potential terrorist,” that Congress would actually even consider the institution of a national ID card, it seems that the American Stasi is well entrenched within our own government.