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Yes, The NSA Is Tracking You. Get Over It

A German writer is fed up with the hypocrisy of an exhibitionist society outraged by the limits of privacy. Yes, you are being monitored. Now get back to your celebrity Twitter feed.

What did he expect?
What did he expect?
Henryk M. Broder

- OpEd-

BERLIN — Imagine the following situation: An exhibitionist doesn’t have curtains on his windows, so those on both the street and courtyard sides of his apartment can see everything that goes on inside — what he does, who comes to visit, who he goes to bed with and wakes up next to.

The exhibitionist doesn’t just casually let this go on; he actually wants it that way. It’s the way he lives.

Then one day he notices that one of the neighbors has a telescope facing his apartment. The exhibitionist calls the neighbor. “How dare you spy on me. You’re invading my private space!” he yells into the phone, furious. “I didn’t think you cared, maybe even liked it,” the neighbor says, defending himself. “Yes!” the exhibitionist screams, “but not when you do it!”

You’ve guessed where this is going. A society of exhibitionists gets teed-off when it’s watched by voyeurs. Professional ones, as it happens in the present NSA brouhaha, in the service of foreign powers.

German blogger Sascha Lobo says he feels “astonishment, dismay, outrage, irritation, a sense of powerlessness, anger and revulsion,” and Germany’s President Joachim Gauck wonders “if I can openly phone or e-mail at all anymore.”

These are amazing reactions given that our multi-directional, equal, free and transparent society is built on three pillars: quashing the private sphere, exhibitionism and voyeurism.

“Like a beach for nudists”

It’s not just on the train that we have to put up with business people discussing private matters with their significant others or personal assistants, absolutely unconcerned that we really don’t want to know. And celebrities of all stripes seem to feel obliged to share their private lives with us via Facebook, Twitter or one of the TV formats specifically created to deliver news-that’s-not-really-news to a society of voyeurs, who absolutely want to know what a well-known actor’s illegitimate son has to say about him, or how a famous actress is doing in rehab. Check out shows like Brisant (ARD) or Explosiv and Exclusiv (RTL) on German TV and you’ll see why the only places in the country that still have peep shows are places where television reception is poor.

All must be revealed! Germany is like a beach for nudists. Instead of perceiving people who “out themselves” as perpetrating a form of indecent exposure, we cover them with praise for their “courage.” And if somebody isn’t up for such exposure because they want to keep their private life to themselves, they are constantly prodded to go for it.

For example, to “help” gay soccer players come out, the German Football Association (DFB) has published a brochure entitled Fussball und Homosexualität ("Soccer and Homosexuality"). Its purpose is to provide “support for homosexual players both male and female.” In addition, German Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who favors “informational self-determination,” has asked national trainer Joachim Löw, together with national team players, to participate in Christopher Street Day (an annual European LGBT street event).

“Participation on the part of the DFB in 2014, with their own float, would be a great sign because it would be so visible,” she explained, without for a moment thinking of the right to “informational self-determination” for players who are gay but don’t wish to come out, or heterosexuals who don’t wish to be taken for gay.

Meanwhile, three dozen German writers have written an open letter to Angela Merkel urging the German chancellor to protect them from “foreign intelligence agencies monitoring our phone calls and electronic communication” because “this is an historic attack on our democratic constitutional state in the form of a reversal of the principle of presumption of innocence to presuming the guilt of millions.”

“The reversal of the principle of presumption of innocence to presuming the guilt of millions?” But that’s something we all experience daily.

Technology is two-sided

Presumption of innocence goes out the window when you’re filmed at the bank even though there isn’t the slightest reason to suspect that you’re out to steal other people’s money. Presuming the guilt of millions has become routine. If I want to fly to Frankfurt from Berlin, the purchase of the ticket alone apparently justifies the suspicion of planned hijacking.

“The historic attack on our democratic constitutional state” has to all appearances no consequences for the individual citizen. That’s the big difference between Gestapo and Stasi activity — on the surface the latter produced no damage, human or otherwise.

In Germany alone, 500 million “metadata” are monitored every month! But so what? If it were 500 or 5,000 we should worry, but 500,000,000? We can just keep on phoning and sending e-mails, no problem. The bigger the hay stack, the smaller the needle.

Anybody who books an Amazon adventure holiday or a Himalayan trekking tour on the Internet uses their smartphone to call up a map of Timbuktu or the Google Earth app to help them find their way on a stroll through Calcutta. They should not be surprised or irritated by the fact that the American government is in a position to follow — and register — their footsteps.

Anybody who takes a subway or bus ride home and doesn’t want to risk ending up on a mortuary slab instead has to be prepared to pay the price for the added security of a phone. We benefit from technology in other ways too. For example, a patient being operated on in Hildesheim will welcome the fact that a specialist located in Houston, Texas, can look over their surgeon’s shoulder via Web cam and help him or her through the procedure.

The Internet is not the first “dual use” invention. The printing press meant that both the Sermon on the Mount and Mein Kampf could be published. Atomic energy can be used for medical purposes — or bombs. Dynamite is useful to blast through rock when constructing mountain tunnels just as it can be used to blow up a train.

And this is not something that’s going to change. Today, any mobile phone can be traced to its location, even if the device is turned off. And when cash becomes obsolete because printing and distributing bank notes is supposedly just too expensive — and we have to pay for every cup of coffee and every ice cream cone with a chip card or our mobile phone — it will not only save the tax authorities a lot of work, it will also wipe out what little remains of our privacy.

And don’t say the no-money thing is impossible. The first mobile phones capable of taking and sending pictures came onto the market in 2000. Before that, such a thing was unimaginable.

Meanwhile, you can post the photos online immediately and share them with “friends” that you’ve never seen or spoken to. But God forbid we should ever be “spied on.” What those writers are defending is not “the principle of the presumption of innocence” but their own innocence in the face of reality.

A laptop is not a travel typewriter, and the Internet is not a collection point for carrier pigeons. There are only drawings of the Titanic's demise, but the collapse of the north tower of the World Trade Center was broadcast live. And the “historic attack on our democratic constitutional state” also has its benefits.

It brings clarity, for one thing. About the borders of privacy in the digital age, but also about writers who overreach themselves, and exhibitionists who get all huffy about voyeurs.

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