When Wolfgang Schmidt learned about NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the agency's ability to collect personal data on millions of American citizens, he was astonished. When he was a lieutenant colonel in East Germany’s secret police, the STASI, his department, was limited to tapping just 40 phones every day. If a decision was made to tap a new phone, one of the others had to be disconnected. Said Schmidt: “For us, this would have been a dream come true ... so much information on so many people!”
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) employed more than 90,000 people, including 15,000 soldiers in the GDR army and 2,000 full-time collaborators. There were also 175,000 “unofficial” collaborators. One STASI official estimated the total to be closer to 500,000 people, or about five percent of the country’s population at the time.
They were assigned to all major industrial plants as well as schools, universities, and hospitals. Other informants worked as trolley conductors, janitors, doctors, nurses, and teachers — people who had frequent contact with citizens. At its peak the STASI had one informer for every six citizens.
When Malte Spitz, a member of Germany’s Green Party, sued his telephone company, Deutsche Telekom (DT) back in 2010, he learned that the new technology is vastly more intrusive than even the STASI in its heyday. The compact disc he received from DT as part of the settlement included more than 35,000 pieces of data that revealed
when Spitz walked down the street, when he took a train, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities he visited. It shows when he worked and when he slept, when he could be reached by phone and when [he] was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phone and when he preferred to send a text message. It shows which beer gardens he liked to visit in his free time. All in all, it reveals an entire life.
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Photo of Berlin Wall: AP Images