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 come to the same conclusion without ever leaving the US, but for me it took a leap outside the continent to truly comprehend our planet’s size.

What Living in East Berlin Taught Me About the Value of Privacy

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 what transpired there during the Cold War was cursory at best. Personally, I’ve found that having the ability to physically see or observe places where historical events took place creates a level of understanding a book simply cannot provide. The ability to witness history with your own eyes is another benefit of studying overseas, especially for Americans majoring in subjects like Political Science or International Affairs. 

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 manifestation of this concept.

Who were the Stasi? Let’s start with the name itself, which is an abbreviation for the former East German State Security Service. Like many words in the German language, the complete text 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 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 to social media reflects the wounds of history. Consider that many private residences and even public businesses in Germany are blotted out on Google street view. I was able to find the example cited above in less than a minute of simply searching through a random street in Germany. The initial distrust of a massive company like Google 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 in lieu of their real names, which struck me as odd until I thought about it more. Although Germans have embraced social media like Facebook, their approach is much different compared to how I see Americans using the technology. Several of my German friends, for example, post next to nothing on Facebook, simply using the tool to communicate with others via the messenger service. It’s a strategy that I’ve co-opted in my own approach to my digital privacy.

This latent sense of mistrust by Germans and I’d also argue many Eastern Europeans reflects a culture that once had to live in a time where the right to privacy simply did not exist. If we can learn anything from history, it is to know that our privacy is a privilege.

In case you think I’m exaggerating about the state of privacy in the world, consider a recent experiment performed in the UK. The premise appears innocuous: patrons of a local cafe were asked to like the Facebook page of the business in exchange for a free coffee, which on paper appears to be a fair trade off. By this simple act, ie liking the Facebook page of the cafe, an undercover team of privacy experts were able to glean incredible amounts of personal data about the shop patrons: phone number, date of birth, occupation, etc

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 benevolent. Simply put, the original idea behind Facebook was to tap into technology developments in order to connect with fellow students and of course to allow a place for horny male students to rate their female co-eds. I feel the same about Google, that the original intent was noble: to trim and manicure the explosive chaos of data that the Internet was rapidly developing into. Finally, I believe in Twitter’s philosophy which is  to provide anyone in the world the ability to share their voice from the convenience of their phone, a virtual soapbox that society has never seen before.

In their own way though, the success of these new social tools has come at an extremely high cost. Firms like Facebook and Google have evolved, or better said, devolved over time into their own Frankensteins, and in true form have occasionally fallen out of the control of their creators. Consider 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 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 fact should scare you, because it scares me!

Yet, in spite of this, we continue to willingly volunteer deeply personal information about ourselves on a daily basis: our location, next of kin, associates, travel plans, even what we are eating! This does come at a price, especially when the service is “free.” I just hope that my worst fears don’t materialize.

How Can We Best Protect Our Digital Privacy?

Image result for the lives of others

Fringe groups which advocate for removing one’s social media presence entirely will always exist in society. In fact, history has shown that the introduction of new technology always comes with some form of pushback from those not open to the change it can usher in. For example, when it first became possible to record thoughts in the form of scrolls or tablets, the technology was met with scorn by leading intellectuals. Prior to the written word, 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 this theme into a modern day context, when the television soon found itself in everyone’s home, critics of the technology argued that 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 blindly adopting new technology without thinking through the consequences. I agree that our minds would be sharper if we took more advantage of our brain’s amazing storage capacity, the study of a foreign language being one way to harness this in modern day times. To an extent, I also understand the rationale behind the fear of television’s negative impact on the family. It was true, some families behaved exactly as predicted, but clearly not all.

Continuing with this theme, I’m confident that we can strike a happy balance with social media. 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. I doubt, for example, that Socrates ever imagined that myself and scores of others would be discussing him so far into the future!

As mentioned, running away from technology is not the answer, it’s akin to complaining about the government but abstaining from voting. What’s important to remember though is that adopters of the technology actually hold the cards in this relationship, not the providers.

Similar to the power structure in a labor union, it is the collective action of consumers who can drive change. It won’t happen overnight but with time, perhaps many years down the road, we will properly adapt to social media. Until that happens, my suggestion is not to discard this technology as some call for but to use it to your maximum advantage. Should we all follow the guidelines I’m proposing, the technology will be forced to adapt to us.

How I Protect My Digital Privacy

This leads to my “Turn the Tables” approach to social media, which especially applies to Facebook but is useful for all the mediums currently available. I’ve highlighted the main points below; should you wish to explore the topic further, check out the full article.

  • Limit the number of personal photos of yourself that you share
  • Remove anything about your specific location on all social media accounts
  • Unless it is for public consumption, such as a business or personal brand, make your Facebook page private so non friends cannot view any personal details about yourself
  • Post photos from your vacation afterwards and focus on enjoying the present moment!
  • Create a phony/dummy for the purpose of commenting, especially political posts
  • Periodically remove old and irrelevant posts

The Future of Our Digital Privacy Lies in Our Hands

Technology is not going away anytime soon yet the future remains in our hands as to how we mold and shape it. Perhaps my ideas are too radical, usually the outside the box ideas tend to be. If you’ve come this far, I’d be satisfied if I’ve succeeded in providing you 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 both on this post and my suggestions.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.