Berlin’s digital exiles: where tech activists go to escape the NSA

With its strict privacy laws, Germany is the refuge of choice for those hounded by the security services. Carole Cadwalladr visits Berlin to meet Laura Poitras, the director of Edward Snowden film Citizenfour, and a growing community of surveillance refuseniks

It’s the not knowing that’s the hardest thing, Laura Poitras tells me. “Not knowing whether I’m in a private place or not.” Not knowing if someone’s watching or not. Though she’s under surveillance, she knows that. It makes working as a journalist “hard but not impossible”. It’s on a personal level that it’s harder to process. “I try not to let it get inside my head, but… I still am not sure that my home is private. And if I really want to make sure I’m having a private conversation or something, I’ll go outside.”

Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, has just been released in cinemas. She was, for a time, the only person in the world who was in contact with Snowden, the only one who knew of his existence. Before she got Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian on board, it was just her – talking, electronically, to the man she knew only as “Citizenfour”. Even months on, when I ask her if the memory of that time lives with her still, she hesitates and takes a deep breath: “It was really very scary for a number of months. I was very aware that the risks were really high and that something bad could happen. I had this kind of responsibility to not fuck up, in terms of source protection, communication, security and all those things, I really had to be super careful in all sorts of ways.”

Bad, not just for Snowden, I say? “Not just for him,” she agrees. We’re having this conversation in Berlin, her adopted city, where she’d moved to make a film about surveillance before she’d ever even made contact with Snowden. Because, in 2006, after making two films about the US war on terror, she found herself on a “watch list”. Every time she entered the US – “and I travel a lot” – she would be questioned. “It got to the point where my plane would land and they would do what’s called a hard stand, where they dispatch agents to the plane and make everyone show their passport and then I would be escorted to a room where they would question me and oftentimes take all my electronics, my notes, my credit cards, my computer, my camera, all that stuff.” She needed somewhere else to go, somewhere she hoped would be a safe haven. And that somewhere was Berlin.

What’s remarkable is that my conversation with Poitras will be the first of a whole series of conversations I have with people in Berlin who either are under surveillance, or have been under surveillance, or who campaign against it, or are part of the German government’s inquiry into it, or who work to create technology to counter it. Poitras’s experience of understanding the sensation of what it’s like to know you’re being watched, or not to know but feel a prickle on the back of your neck and suspect you might be, is far from unique, it turns out. But then, perhaps more than any other city on earth, Berlin has a radar for surveillance and the dark places it can lead to.

“There is just a very real historical awareness of how information can be used against people in really dangerous ways here,” Poitras says. “There is a sensitivity to it which just doesn’t exist elsewhere. And not just because of the Stasi, the former East German secret police, but also the Nazi era. There’s a book Jake Appelbaum talks a lot about that’s called IBM and the Holocaust and it details how the Nazis used punch-cards to systemise the death camps. We’re not talking about that happening with the NSA [the US National Security Agency], but it shows how this information can be used against populations and how it poses such a danger.”

“Jake” – Jacob Appelbaum – is an American who helped develop the anonymous Tor network, and went on to work with WikiLeaks. He’s also in Berlin, having discovered that he was the subject of a secret US grand jury investigation, and it was he who advised Poitras to come here. “I’d been filming him doing this extraordinary work training activists in anti-surveillance techniques in the Middle East and I asked him where I should go, because I just didn’t think I could keep my footage safe in the US. And he said Germany because of its privacy laws. And Berlin because of all the groups doing anti-surveillance work here.”

People’s reactions in Germany to the Snowden revelations differed to those in Britain or America. There was full-on national outrage when it was revealed that even chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone had been bugged. I know this already, vaguely, in theory, but it’s a different matter to actually come to Berlin and hear person after person talk about it. I start out with three names, three high-profile “digital exiles” who have all taken refuge in the city: Poitras, Appelbaum and Sarah Harrison, another WikiLeaker who was with Snowden during his time in transit in Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow and helped him apply for political asylum in 21 countries. But I end up with reams of others. And, I can’t help thinking that Berlin, the city that found itself at the frontline of so much of the 20th century’s history, has found itself, once again, on the fracture point between two opposing world orders. And I wonder if the people I meet are the start of the internet fightback; if Berlin really is becoming a hub for a global digital resistance movement.

Is that too fanciful a word, I ask Martin Kaul, the social movements editor of Berlin’s most radical newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, or “Taz” as it’s known – and if anyone is in a position to know, it’s him (he is the only social movements editor he’s ever come across, he tells me). Is it a movement? Kaul ums and ahs a bit at first, especially about the idea of the city as a harbour for “digital exiles”, a concept I’d first heard in a talk Julian Assange gave at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year.

“They are very high profile, the exiles,” he says, “but I don’t think there are hundreds of them here, or even dozens. I’d be interested to know if they are growing. But, what is true is that there were already many very influential groups here. Hacker culture is especially strong in Germany. There were a lot of people already working on these issues. And then the exiles arrived. They are like an international avant garde at the cutting edge of it.”

“It” is the ideological fault line that has opened up between a free and open web, and a web where everything is logged, catalogued. “It is a movement,” says Kaul. “But it’s not out on the streets. It’s more like Berlin is a laboratory, an experimental space, where practices of subversion, of hacktivism, of cyber-resistance are taking place. Because if it’s not working in Germany … where is it going to work?”

But then, it is the blink of an eye. It’s 25 years since the wall came down. And, in a strange historical collision, 25 years since the world wide web was invented. When I first came to Berlin, the internet didn’t exist and I was still some years away from sending my first email. In a historical time frame, the evolution of digital technology, its capabilities, the never-going-back cultural cataclysm that it’s precipitated, has all happened while most of us, a single generation, were working out what to have for dinner, or who to marry, or how to earn a living; a microscopic sliver of time that has changed not just the world at our fingertips but, we’ve discovered since Snowden, the secret world beyond our fingertips. What is known about us. Who we are. What our records say.

In Germany, they don’t know either, but no one assumes they’re the good guys. Everyone cites the Stasi when talking about NSA surveillance, and I wonder how meaningful that comparison is. Hubertus Knabe, a historian who’s the head of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a former Stasi prison, tells me how he wrote to the public prosecutor last year. “Because I was not satisfied that he had decided to investigate only the case of who bugged the German chancellor, not the cases of ordinary people. He said that it is because in this case it is clear there is a victim. Whereas you can’t investigate a case against everyone.”

So they’re saying because it’s a crime against everyone, it’s a crime against no one?

“Exactly! It makes no sense to me.”

Germany has some of the strongest laws in the world when it comes to surveillance and privacy. It is illegal for the foreign security service, the BND, to spy on its own citizens. But, the NSA has had bases in Germany since 1945 and there are no laws that govern its behaviour. A parliamentary inquiry is now under way, to try and establish what the BND knew – the only one of its kind in the world, post-Snowden – but when I visit Hans-Christian Ströbele, the veteran Green MP who is leading the inquiry, in his office in the Bundestag he tells me: “We think we will find good information about what the BND has been doing.” And the NSA? GCHQ? He shakes his head. “Isn’t that a bit depressing?” I say. “That we’re sitting here in the parliament of one of the greatest democracies on earth, with a constitution that had to be rebuilt from the ground up, and there is nothing, legislatively that you can do?”

“It is,” he says.

But then Hubertus Knabe tells me: “The minister of the Stasi always said, ‘We have to answer the question, who is who?’ Those were his words. That means, who thinks what? It used to be an obvious fundamental difference between a democratic state and a dictatorial one that you don’t investigate someone until they did a criminal act. Innocent people are not surveiled. And in this, the difference between how a democratic state acts and how a totalitarian one acts has diminished. And this is very, I don’t know the English word. Besorgniserregend? Hold on, I will look it up,” and he taps into his phone. “Alarming! This is very alarming to me.”

I’m about to leave when he tells me about a conference he held recently at the museum. “And this man, a former prisoner, kept saying this very strange thing. It was very annoying at first. He kept saying, ‘I am your future’. ‘I already experienced what will be your future.’ But he was very serious. He had emigrated to Paris. He really meant it.”

There’s Claudio Agosti of GlobaLeaks, a platform he describes as “like WikiLeaks but open source” and Stephanie Hankey, a Brit who’s director of Tactical Tech, an anti-surveillance NGO which moved to Berlin a couple of years ago. And Christian Mihr, the German director of Reporter Ohne Grenzen (Reporters Without Borders), whose office specialises in cases of international digital repression and who helps journalists from oppressive regimes around the world find safe harbour in Berlin. Though it’s not until I finally track down Andy Müller-Maguhn of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) that I start to really understand why. Everywhere I go, people tell me about the CCC, that it’s one of the most influential digital organisations anywhere, the centre of German digital culture, hacker culture, hackitivism, and the intersection of any discussion of democratic and digital rights. It holds an annual congress which started in Berlin in 1990 and is attended by more than 10,000 people.

But then so much started in 1990 in Berlin. “Half of the people were coming from the east and others, like me, from the west, and at that time, it was pretty easy to break some rules somewhere,” he says. “It was so cheap and the infrastructure was a bit shit but we came together during this period when Germany was in the process of revealing what the East German intelligence did.

“There was this incredible transparency. It was one of the best documented intelligence agencies ever. We had access to all these manuals: ‘how to destroy social relationships’, ‘how to organise distrust’, ‘how to destroy political movements’ and all these things we discussed in the club. We were very aware of how the intelligence services could do these things… and this was part of our creation from the very beginning.”

There are so many impassioned voices in Berlin telling the same story in different ways. Diani Barreto describes the city as having an entre-deux-guerres feel, how there’s a touch of Weimar, a hint of Christopher Isherwood, to the way the international community has discovered the city, not least the freedom it offers from the constraints of Piketty’s Das Kapital (I visit a friend whose teenage daughter bursts into the room to say she’s found a one-bedroom flat to rent for “€300, warm, ie including heating and hot water”). Wilutzky describes the experience of coming to West Berlin in the 1980s: “There was this terrible feeling of oppression as you drove through the east, and then suddenly this amazing sense of freedom! It felt like the freest place on Earth. You could do anything here.”

Berlin was for a long time this strange geopolitical anomaly, a shadow theatre for the great powers, the capital of nazism, the frontline of the cold war, and the alternating experiences of stifling oppression and mind-blowing liberation are the twin strands of its 20th-century history. The most compelling voice of all that I encounter belongs to a woman called Anke Domscheit-Berg, who has known both. She’s a 46-year-old feminist and activist who used to work as a lobbyist for Microsoft (and whose name is possibly familiar because her husband, Daniel, was a spokesman for WikiLeaks until he fell out with Assange). She was born and grew up in the east and was 21 when the wall fell, an event she describes as “the most emotional day of my life”.

She was an art student and she tells the story of how the Stasi tried to recruit her as an informant. “People say of the NSA, ‘I have nothing to hide.’ But it doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as innocent information. I had things I needed to hide from the East German authorities but that wasn’t what they blackmailed me with. They blackmailed me with my father’s job. He was a doctor, employed by the state. They said: ‘Don’t you care about what happens to your family if he loses his job?’

She guffaws. “You are so on the grid.” It’s only semi-serious but still. “As soon as you start to censor yourself,” Domscheit-Berg tells me, “then you leave the path of free speech. So many people now do this in Berlin. They avoid certain expressions. When we have meetings they leave their phones in different rooms. You have already lost your freedom.”

Have I already lost mine? Has it affected my online behaviour? Possibly. My thoughts have always flowed seamlessly from my brain to my fingers to Google’s all-knowing rectangular white box. And now? There’s the briefest pause. A hesitancy. It’s not exactly an iron curtain but it’s not nothing either. I’m being watched. But then, you are too. And, if you think it doesn’t matter, go to Berlin. Go to the Stasi museum. See how it all panned out last time around.

Full article: Berlin’s digital exiles: where tech activists go to escape the NSA (The Guardian)

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