Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
I recently watched "The Lives of Others", a movie set in 1984 East Berlin which follows the life of an East German writer and the agent of the secret police tasked with surveilling him. Without delving too deeply into the plot, the film revolves around Georg Dreyman (the East German writer) publishing an article in the West which exposes and questions the increase in suicides among East Germans, especially among its creative class. Although the technology used in the film predates the modern Internet, the movie can teach us important lessons about facilitating dissent against tyranny. Warning: the following contains mild spoilers.

At the beginning of the film the Minister of Culture has Dreyman's house bugged and put under surveillance. The Minister is motivated to find dirt on Dreyman because he is interested in Dreyman's girlfriend. However, the agent tasked with surveilling Dreyman begins to empathize with him and falsifies reports to hide his subversive activities. Without the agent's help, Dreyman would have quickly been brought in by the secret police for writing the article. Dreyman's privacy, as protected by a friendly government operative, is therefore instrumental in enabling him to publish his article safely.

A key tool used by Dreyman in publishing his article is a typewriter smuggled into the country by a member of the West German press. The Stasi have extensive knowledge of the typewriters used by East German authors and have experts on hand who can link any manuscript to its author by its typeface. However, since the Stasi command don't know that Dreyman has the typewriter, they can't link the manuscript to him when it is published in the West. The typewriter is used as a tool to protect Dreyman's anonymity.

However, the typewriter can only protect Dreyman as long as the Stasi don't know he has it. On the suspicion that he is the author, the Stasi search Dreyman's house for the typewriter. Luckily for Dreyman, the friendly Stasi agent comes to the rescue again and removes the typewriter from his apartment before the others arrive. As with the falsified reports, without the help of the friendly Stasi operative, Dreyman would have been linked to the manuscript.

The Lives of Others, though from an earlier time, holds important lessons that carry over into our modern era of communication. First and foremost, the movie highlights the imperatives of a state obsessed with eliminating dissent and the centrality of privacy and anonymity in enabling the communication of dissenting ideas in such an environment. Surveillance is a tool of oppression, privacy and anonymity are tools of freedom.

Freedom Box, or similar anonymizing tools, can act like Dreyman's typewriter in the modern era, allowing a writer to communicate information without having it linked back to them. This anonymity gives the author freedom they would not otherwise have. However, like the typewriter, such a device could itself be incriminating. Ubiquity seems to be the answer for Freedom Box: The more people who have a freedom box for innocuous purposes, the less simple possession of one can be used to support an argument that it is being used to spread subversive information.

In The Lives of Others, the primacy of surveillance in identifying subversive agents and silencing their dissent makes the importance of privacy very clear. Without privacy, subversive agents can be quickly found out and silenced. Furthermore, once it is clear that subversive agents are being surveilled, others who might have otherwise engaged in subversive activity will choose to censor themselves for their own protection. Only with some guarantee of privacy can individuals feel safe in expressing their subversive ideas. Although little can be done in authoritarian states to prevent wiretapping or bugging, freedom to associate and communicate with others privately can be protected with technical solutions like freedom box.

Freedom Box, like the typewriter and friendly Stasi agent in The Lives of Others, can enable the communication of subversive ideas and information. However, though Dreyman's article may have helped the West see East Germany as it actually was, it is unclear how much of this information would have reached the average East German citizen. Since political upheavals must arise internally through the collective action of an organized citizenry, smuggling out an article to the Western press is only effective to the extent that the information is able to trickle back into the oppressed country. The Great Firewall of China or similar filtering efforts will always do their best to prevent this and here too Freedom Box can act as a tunnel through the Firewall. Ultimately, a political transformation can only occur if a critical mass of people within a country can organize against those in power. To this end, it is unclear whether Freedom Box can bring true political freedom to authoritarian states. At the very least Freedom Box can act as a tiny pocket of freedom in a sea of oppression, which today's Georg Dreyman's will be very thankful for.

The essay draft is 823 words long, of which, "without delving too deeply into the plot," you use more than 330 describing the plot. The remaining paragraphs say, twice, that the FreedomBox is like the typewriter on which the great writer's life hinges. It isn't. The point of the typewriter is that it isn't a secure communications system, because physical possession of the typewriter deanonymizes everything it has ever written. A computer securely routing your communications should not be easy to turn against you if it is seized. We can make that true of the FreedomBox software, easily.

So, in revision, drop the movie summary; we've all seen and admired it, somewhat. (Surely you could have made something out of its absolutely cowardly and untruthful ending?) Concentrate your attention on whatever it is you want to say for which the movie is merely, at best, a metaphor.

-- DarrenHaber - 08 May 2013



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r3 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:49 - IanSullivan
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