Developments in technology come with a price. History can teach us how we can shield ourselves from losing our privacy.

Although college education has come under attack as of late, one valuable lesson from my university experience was studying overseas. Whenever I have the opportunity to discuss the merits of a college education, I always encourage students to consider studying abroad for at least one semester. Despite the hackneyed phrase, my education overseas did indeed change my life.

For Americans reading this, you never realize the bubble you are in until you step outside of it. Only after living in another country was I truly able to appreciate how massively large the world really is. Of course, you could say the same thing without ever leaving the US, but for me it took a leap outside the continent to truly comprehend our planet’s size.

In my final year of university education, I lived in East Berlin. For better or worse, this city seems to constantly be the focal point of world affairs, having changed so much between wars, both hot and cold. As of this writing, Germany is once again dominating headlines as the country tries to negotiate the current migrant crisis.  

Berlin was indeed the focal point of the Cold War, something I feel isn’t emphasized enough. Now that this is conflict slowly recedes further into the history books, it appears that the story has been compressed to a few main highlights: The Cuban Missile Crisis, arms treaties, and the subsequent fall of the Wall. To truly understand what transpired, however, one must know what was happening in Berlin during the Cold War.

Prior to living in Berlin, my knowledge of the conflict was cursory at best. This is another benefit of studying overseas, especially for Americans majoring in subjects like Political Science or International Affairs. Having the ability to physically see or observe places where events took place creates a level of understanding a book simply cannot provide.

To bring up another hackneyed saying, I feel history repeating itself when I look at the state of privacy in the world today. Ask anyone who lived under the former East German state about privacy, you’ll encounter a perspective most Americans never considered.

Known as the Stasi-Akten, or files of the Stasi, in the pre-internet days, the East German Stasi collected massive amounts of data about all citizens. Sound familiar?

As I learned during my studies, the Berlin Wall, referred to by the German Democratic Republic as the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Wall of Protection) was built not to keep people out, but to close them in. And the only way to contain people who are essentially prisoners in their own country is to establish a strong apparatus that keeps their thumb closely on its citizens, the Stasi being the physical representation.

Stasi, is an abbreviation for the former East German State Security Service. Like most of the German language, the full word appears grossly intimidating to a foreigner’s eye: Staatssicherheitsdienst. I guess the word was long enough that even Germans opted for the abbreviation of Stasi. On a side note, if you find this topic interesting and wish to explore the subject further, I strongly recommend visiting the Stasi museum in Berlin.

How the Stasi Left a Permanent Mark on German Attitudes Towards Privacy

The Stasi were essentially a massive spy network who kept tabs on citizens, and especially any dissidents. Under the German Democratic Republic, snitching on your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and even family members was encouraged. It was a dog-eat-dog type of system where everybody was under scrutiny.

In the former East German Republic, free expression did not exist, something many Americans seems to take for granted. The consequences for holding an opinion against the state could be extreme given the fact that anyone could hang you out to dry. Since anyone could turn you in, a sense of mistrust is the only way one could proceed through life under such a system.

The extent of the state control went beyond mere privacy concerns as all Western propaganda was outright forbidden. I’ll never forget one of my professors telling me that his job as a student was to read through the mail coming into the country and to edit or remove any references to Western propaganda deemed unsuitable by the state, for example Mickey Mouse 🙂

When the tide was turning in the final days of the Cold War, the Stasi hastily tried to destroy the records they kept in Erfurt, the office headquarters. A group of brave citizens would later occupy the buildings to prevent further destruction of the documentation. For history’s sake, these efforts of valor preserved the records for posterity. As the Cold War ended, citizens would later visit the archives to read their own files and see what intimate details a faceless, state run apparatus had compiled about them.

There’s no doubt that such an experience would not easily be forgotten by former citizens of the GDR. The opinions and minsets of those who grew up in former East Germany would not only be passed on to the next generation but also reflect policy, as we’ll shortly come to.

The German Approach to New Technology

It is not uncommon for Germans to block Google Street View from displaying their private residences or businesses.

Observing German behavior to technology allows us to understand a real life application of learned history. Although Germans have embraced new technology trends like all other countries, their approach reflects the wounds of history. Consider that many private residences and even public businesses in Germany are blotted out on Google street view, the above example I found at random in less than a minute. The initial distrust of this technology is for good reason; Germans don’t want a faceless behemoth to know where they are living because nearly half of the country still hasn’t forgotten the experience. 

Having lived in Germany, the friends I made on Facebook were far less willing to divulge as much information as their American counterparts. For example, most of my German friends use pseudonyms, which struck me as odd until I thought about it more. Although Germans have embraced social media like Facebook, they share far less than others, especially personal details.

This latent sense of mistrust by Germans and I’d also say many Eastern Europeans as well reflects a culture that once had to live in a time where the right to privacy did not exist. If we can learn anything from history, it is to know that our privacy is a privilege. And just In case you think I’m exaggerating about the state of privacy in the world, consider the recent experiment performed in the UK, where a simple like of a page at coffeeshop allowed the undercover team to ascertain far too many scary details about their patrons.

As a final thought, is it any surprise that Germany was the first EU member state to adopt a law implementing the General Data Protection Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2016/679) (‘GDPR’)? Given how digital our lives have become, it seems logical that the idea of online privacy protection was initiated by the Germans. Although many businesses initially complained about GDPR, in my view I think some level of protection is necessary, especially given how much information technology firms now possess about us.

So What Does This Mean for Us?

The rapid pace of technological development has led to the arrival of a variety of new applications and tools which I feel had innocuous births. In my heart of hearts I believe the original intent of Facebook was to use technology developments in order to connect with those in your university and for the hormone raging male students to rate their female counterparts; that Google sought to trim and manicure the chaos that the Internet was rapidly developing into; and finally that Twitter wanted to give anyone in the world the ability to share their voice from the convenience of their phone. From this perspective these tools appear benevolent in nature.

In their own way though, the success of these new tools has come with a price. The technology firms I’ve highlighted have developed over time into their own type of Frankensteins, which appear out of the control the control of even those who created them. Consider, for example, Facebook’s efforts to better control the hate groups on its platform, or the steps YouTube has taken to police hate content. Finally, even Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, has more or less admitted that he cannot accurately police the volume of information flowing through his platform: ““I believe a lot of our value in the future….not today – we have tons of work to do…is to take a strong stance of, ‘We are going to be a company that, given this entire corpus of conversation and content within the world, is going to promote healthy public conversation.’ That’s what we’re going to do.”

My hesitation in fully trusting this new technology isn’t born solely from my time spent in Germany, it also comes from a gut level instinct. I’ve never fully trusted these platforms, especially as they’ve grown bigger and become more pervasive in our lives. On that point, I think it’s fair to argue that as anything becomes larger, whether it is a corporation or the government, one should be less trustful for the mere fact that the level of transparency diminishes.

Going back to the Stasi, imagine for a moment if they possessed the technology that we have today. Their work would essentially be done for them. Putting this point in a historical context, that should scare you, because it scares me!

Yet, we continue to willingly volunteer deeply personal information about ourselves on a daily basis: our location, loved ones, travel plans, even what we are eating! This does come at a price, I just hope that my worst fears don’t materialize.

How Can We Best Protect Our Privacy?

Image result for the lives of others

Fringe groups that advocate removing one’s social media presence, or completely dumping the technology altogether will always exist in society. In fact, history has proven this to be the case. Bear in mind that when it was first possible to record ideas in the form of books or manuscripts, the idea was met with scorn by leading intellectuals. Prior to books, stories were passed on orally via rigorous memorization, the status quo at the time felt that our brains would become lazy if the words were recorded for us. Consider this quote from Socrates: “[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Taking the idea into a modern day context, when television first came out, critics felt it would erode the family structure as everyone would be glued to the screen non-stop.

In both of these examples, ancient and modern, I find a small nugget of truth in the criticism and warning about what is essentially new technology. I agree that our minds would be sharper if we took more advantage of our brain’s amazing storage capacity, a language being one way to harness this in modern day times. I also agree to an extent with those who felt threatened by the television as some families behaved exactly as they way they predicted, but obviously not all.

Continuing with this theme, I’m of the opinion that we can also strike a happy balance with technology. As I’ve warned and outlined throughout this post, caution should be exercised, but just like books in the time of Socrates, the technology is not going away, rather it will only evolve and develop to a level we most likely can’t predict.

Running away from the technology is not the answer, it’s akin to complaining about the government but abstaining from voting. What’s important to remember is that the users of technology actually hold the cards. Similar to the power structure in a labor union, it is the collective action of the people who can drive change. It won’t happen overnight but over time, perhaps many years down the road, we will properly adapt. Until that happens, my suggestion is not to discard this technology but use them to maximize your advantage. Should we all follow the guidelines I’m proposing, the technology will be forced to adapt to us.

In a supplementary post, I’ve outlined some of the steps you can take to better protect your privacy. I’ve highlighted the main points below; should you wish to understand my thinking behind the suggestions, feel free to check out the full article.

  • Limit the number of personal photos of yourself that you share
  • Remove anything about your specific location on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
  • Unless it is for public consumption, such as a business or brand, make your Facebook page private so non friends cannot view anything about yourself
  • Post photos from your vacation afterwards and focus on enjoying the present moment!
  • Create a phony account for commenting purposes
  • Periodically remove old and irrelevant posts

The Future is in Our Hands

As I’ve reiterated, technology is not going away anytime soon but it is in our hands as to how we mold and shape it for the future. If you’ve come this far, I hope that I’ve provided a perspective that you may not have considered before.

As always, I’m open to not only praise but criticism as well. I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts on my suggestions, feel free to comment below.

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