The NSA and the Stasi: a comparison

Scott Horton looks closely at the parallels and differences between what the NSA has been caught doing and what the East German secret police Stasi did during the Cold War.

The fact that such comparisons are being seriously discussed shows how deep is the rot.


  1. Nepenthe says

    If the comparison is so ridiculous, surely it would be trivial to come up with some illustrative examples for your argument. Perhaps that would be less fun than trollish sniping though.

  2. Chiroptera says

    From the linked article: The Stasi was fundamentally a police operation, outfitted with vast powers to deal with citizens whose loyalty to the worker- and peasant-state were suspect.

    It is possible (but by no means certain) that this is not yet the situation here in the US in regards to the US. But memories of COINTELPRO should at the very least be seen as a warning that pretensions to constitutional democracy is no guarantee that the NSA programs will expand to include any so-called “threats” to the US.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    The fact that such comparisons are being seriously discussed shows how much concern there is about these policies and their effects..

  4. unbound says

    The article isn’t very long, in about the time it took you to put up the snarky comment, you could have read the article itself. The author admits that the comparison to the Stasi doesn’t work well, but puts out a solid thought that we should be concerned with how the Stasi developed, not their end state.

    The derisive dismissal of many that “there is no such thing as privacy in the internet age” belies the old stubbornness that “it can’t happen here”. But why can’t it happen here? Because this is ‘merica?

    Forgot distant history. Hunt down articles from the 70s and 80s right here in the US. It won’t take long to understand that we have changed rapidly as a nation, and almost all in favor of the rich. As that power grows, so does the desire to keep that power in place…and the paranoia of the rich continues increasing its hold in our nation’s laws.

  5. steffp says

    I agree. The comparison of Stasi and NSA is pretty unfair. In fact it compares clumsy late 20th century surveillance technology with 21st century effectiveness.
    The Stasi relied on a network of hundreds of thousands of mostly unwilling informers, who were interviewed (in person, and by Stasi Officers) regularly. Nothing as unreliable as such a system. In fact Stasi did not have a single clue that an opposition was forming, much less how strong the people supported it. Crudely ineffective, judging by the results. It looks more like a disciplinary action, keeping people on party line, limiting the societal discourse, breeding yes-sayers who thought nay.
    The second leg – and that’s what could be compared here – are the IT and the use of surveillance microphones. I won’ bother you with the details, but that was practically a stone-age affair. In Stasi-Land, only 10% of households had a land line connection. (In West Germany, 90%) Mobiles were unheard of for civilians. Surveillance microphones required a telephone line. So, 90% of the population were pretty safe from such actions. Maybe afraid and careful when using someone else’s telephone, but under the radar insofar. A full scale surveillance required teams in three shifts, watching online, analyzing the tapes in real-time. Costly, time-consuming, unreliable, and ineffective.
    The 21st century brought us computers, huge searchable data bases capable of storing incredible amounts of data (practically all IT based communication), voice recognition software able to sort out keywords, and alarm a human operator, algorithms to reduce the amount of false positives, and finally the mobile phone, a device that’s communicating all the time, enabling motion profiles, and sending un-encrypted all the time. As it looks, even internet-based communication like Skype and eMails is being filtered for keywords by the NSA. World-wide, and in the USA.
    Stasi technology was roughly on the level of the FBI’s COINTELPRO of the 70/80. By which I mean guys with headphones and tapes, agents provocateurs, press-ganged informers and people using steam to open envelopes and photo-copying the mail. On on side it looks almost Amishly romantic, on the other side it is what we are used to perceive as a violation of human rights. People breaking in and installing bugs, listening online when you call your girlfriend, It’s so concrete, personal.
    Today we only have an invisible data link to a disinterested machine that sorts out keyword-bearing messages, be they electronically, audio or video, and transfers such to another machine that’s more finely tuned, who in suspense cases sends a signal to an operator, who can, for whatever reasons, request to hear or read the original message. or all messages from the person now regarded a suspect, construct a motion profile, complete with credit card and bank account details. He may need a rubber-stamp approval by a “Secret Court” , and then will get access to all the hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit videocams. It’s totally abstract, impersonal.
    Under human rights aspects, today’s complete surveillance is close to perfect, and absolutely totalitarian. Everyone has the reduced legal status of a suspect unless he proves (by avoiding unusual behavior and keywords) innocent. And the only legitimization for all this is that there is a minuscule threat from terrorist groups and that all that surveillance can be done, technically.
    What I find amusing is that Americans refuse any kind of arms control, although firearms costs 30,000 American lives every year (18,000 of them suicides), while they happily seem to agree to total loss of privacy because terrorism is so much worse, even if it costs astonishingly few lives. More people died in school and university shootings than in terrorist acts after 9/11.
    But of course the NSA database contains all official weapon sales, and most of the illegal ones, too. All one has to do is write a proper SQL request, and press print. If you are an NSA operator, or work a firm they employ, it can be done.

  6. Compuholic says

    I agree. The NSA makes the STASI look like schoolboys. Somebody made a graphical comparison of the data collected by the STASI and by the NSA.

    The NSA would be Erich Mielke’s wet dream.

    But of course the NSA are the good people while the STASI were the bad people. It is just funny how the rhetoric and justifications are pretty much identical. The full name of the STASI was “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit” (meaning “Ministry of State Security”). And not only the name is similar to the NSA. Their tasks were also pretty similar.

    Combine this with the recent development of “Black sites” where people suspected of aiding terrorism simply disappear without any trial and no accountability of the responsible people toward the public, the usage of torture to extract information and you are pretty damn close to a totalitarian government.

  7. badgersdaughter says

    My father, a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution, warned me precisely and specifically about the sorts of things happening now in the US. I thought he was paranoid, and I wasn’t wrong. But in this case at least he seems to have been paranoid in the right way.

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