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Berlin’s digital exiles: where tech activists go to escape the NSA (theguardian.com)
297 points by Kabukks on Nov 9, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 112 comments

I'm going to quote two paragraphs verbatim, because they distill the practical extent of a universal, collect-it-all surveillance.

Anne Roth, a political scientist who’s now a researcher on the German NSA inquiry, tells me perhaps the most chilling story. How she and her husband and their two children – then aged two and four – were caught in a “data mesh”. How an algorithm identified her husband, an academic sociologist who specialises in issues such as gentrification, as a terrorist suspect on the basis of seven words he’d used in various academic papers.

Seven words? “Identification was one. Framework was another. Marxist-Leninist was another, but you know he’s a sociologist… ” It was enough for them to be placed under surveillance for a year. And then, at dawn, one day in 2007, armed police burst into their Berlin home and arrested him on suspicion of carrying out terrorist attacks.

This is not tinfoilhattery or paranoia, not anymore. Get flagged once for any reason at all, and EVERYTHING in your communication history gets reviewed, re-interpreted, with the already established bias of guilt. This is not even a perversion of justice, because the term implies that justice system was actually involved.

And that was in 2007.

I once quipped that Orwell was an optimist. In the brave new world we live in, that statement has finally lost its amusement value.

I'm a little sceptical. How do they know precisely what was used to identify them and what words triggered this "data mesh"? I'm not completely au fait with counter-terrorism policing, but they don't usually disclose the entirety of the evidence against you. How did they know they were under surveillance etc?

The notion that they were subject to surveillance and arrested based on using seven words is a little far-fetched to me. Surveillance is pretty damn expensive, and I'm pretty confident they weren't the only people to use those words.

Again, not necessarily saying they're lying, but I'd love to know where the information comes from.

I'm also a little skeptical that those words _triggered_ an investigation (if so, it would be pretty scary/amazing). But I have no doubt that once you're the target of a "terrorist" investigation, and the authorities are convinced you're the bad guy, they will find something and it will be enough to arrest/disappear you.

Or as someone put it long before I was born,

"If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

There was a lawsuit, she's simply talking about what was in the investigative files.

Yeah, I just suspect there's more to it than what's stated in the article. Surveilling people is really expensive, I doubt they did it just because he'd written an essay with specific words in it.

The thing is that he didn't do much more than writing the article. He's a sociologist and as such writes about topics that do not necessarily match his opinions. The files didn't give many more reasons beyond that, the prosecution was widely criticised as excessive. Given the courtness, the quote is well picked.

The point is that just putting those words our seems to be enough for full surveillance.

> Surveilling people is really expensive,

Not any more. Now it's just a matter of looking them up in a search engine. Whether public (Google) or secret government (ICREACH).

Yeah, there's no way they'd spend the billions of dollars it's cost to surveil everybody "just in case", then use stupid keyword searches to target individuals...


Yeah, it's expensive. But it's the tax payers that pay for it, not the people who sell the equipment or training, nor the people who are payed by the tax payer to use said equipment and training against them.

Even though Snowden leaks pretty much show that?

They don't "pretty much show active surveillance on individuals". Even the NSA doesn't have the human intelligence analyst bandwidth for that. The Snowden leaks show pretty expansive collection of data that could be examined by analysts, along with tools to make the analysis of that data even easier, but unless I've missed one there's nothing in the leaks demonstrating "automated SWATting of a house".

And you think the analyst who took the results of a regression analysis on 7 words has a deep theoretical and practical understanding of the statistical models used and their weaknesses. Ok. It's possible.

Would you bet your life on it? How about other people's lives on it? It's an easier bet to make but be careful that the stakes are as limited as you think they are, huh?

I think it's far more likely that the analyst has what we used to call "common sense" than they that have a master's degree in statistics, I'll admit. Of course Turing and his compatriots at Bletchley Park managed to win the war without all of them having a degree in stats, so maybe it's not actually the critical underpinning of the use of intelligence that you think it is.

Likewise since the NSA doesn't actually have LE working for it they'd have to pass off the juicy bits to some Federal law enforcement agency and convince some non-zero subset of that agency in order to "auto-SWAT" a house.

So yes, this is actually among the easier of bets I'll ever have to make. More difficult ones would involve policy on what should be a crime, what taxes should be, and how the foreign policy of the U.S. should be directed.

Turing and his compatriots weren't using statistical models of which they had no understanding to order raids in peace time.

Turing, yeah, he probably understood stats being a codebreaker and all. Not sure what you think codebreaking is. But I guess the idea that Turing would know his stats isn't common sense, common sense is usually prejudice writ large anyway. Suggesting otherwise as a justification for raiding someone based on a stat analysis of an academic paper hinging on 7 words used is just so silly I can scarcely credit it. Factual underpinning is ridiculous then build fallacies of logic built on that. Well done.

Do you volunteer at being an apologist? What would be so bad that you wouldn't be able to make excuses for it. Seriously?

> What would be so bad that you wouldn't be able to make excuses for it.

Consider the nature of the environment.

On HN when I see things that I agree with, I upvote them. Often I have nothing better to add, as very good points have already been made, so you won't see my username anywhere on an entire thread.

When I see things I disagree with, I'll usually throw in a comment. And with this being HN, where the government is the font of all evil, history started in 1991, everyone is a Constitutional scholar, and the Internet is a magical and special domain where government ought not act, I'm often the only one to disagree on threads like this. Which is fine, c'est la vie.

However normally the points I argue against are not quite so estranged from logic as the idea that an NSA algorithm with focus on a particular 7 words to automatically send SWAT teams to a residence, if only because people usually understand that there are only a finite number of SWAT teams, if nothing else.

So to be clear, I'm not suggesting anything is a justification for sending a SWAT team on 7 words. I'm suggesting that the idea is so patently ludicrous that even the biggest foes of the NSA here have to admit that it's silly to suggest of the NSA that they would send SWAT teams based only and entirely on pattern-matching keywords. So ludicrous, in fact, that it's not even happening, "stupid" analysts or not.

You don't need to be a statistician to figure out that things like satire exist, or research papers written about terrorism, or that there are military personnel looking through "open source intelligence" on extremists to find the edge that will keep them alive through their next deployment. Analysts probably have at least enough training to not burn their intelligence sources on dispatching a SWAT team to a grad student working on a master's thesis, otherwise it would be happening all the time thanks to /b/.

Oh you're satirising an apologist. Fair enough, my bad. Satire gets, well sad when it's indistinguishable from the thing its satirizing (1). Nothing is too silly for the apologists who always showu up.

Rather like Tom Stoppard retiring when the Nobel Peace prize was awarded to Kissinger - how can you top that for satire? Do your worst.

Of course it's ludicrous to suggest that a swat team would be sent, it's that it actually was.

What would be so bad you wouldn't be able to make excuses for it, not that, apparently.

Hello, newly-registered US cyber command account.

I feel it's kind of odd for these people to go to Germany to flee the NSA, since this sort of thing is happening on German soil, through German initiatives (unless you're thinking that Germany is still some crazy puppet state of the USA).

While "consumer privacy rights" mean that you are much more protected against companies in Europe, privacy rights vis-a-vis the governments are virtually non-existant.

If you go back and look through the Snowden leaks, you can see that the UK, France, and Germany have extremely deep spying practices with _absolutely no pretense of privacy concerns_. At least in the US we're trying (or at least pretending to try).

To my knowledge the craziest thing like this that has happened on US soil is people being held up in the airport (I am prepared to stand corrected on this point).

For at least the case of France, I can state with certainty that the NSA has much more restrictions in place than the DGSE has for spying on its own citizens (and others).

By spouting the "US pressured Europe to act on these things" meme, we're doing nothing but harm. We're reducing the agency of these governments in the decisions they'll wilfully take up anyways, and missing some gaping holes in European civil rights.

Some more info about this case: https://www.eff.org/node/81889

One of the seven words was “precarisation”, which had been used in a statement by arsonists. Anne Roth was a former squatter and founded Indymedia Germany.

No matter how silly, there's always an apologist. Paid? Unpaid? Who cares, just note nothing is so bad there won't be one and move on.

7 words trawled from all of your combined words of everything you published and no doubt a bunch of stuff you thought was private. You just used that word too, kirsebaer and you did it because you are guilty.

That's also a statement used regularly by French newspapers. "Precaire" is a standard word in french to mean "underemployed", except it's a broader term for all those who have shaky economic systems.

Precarisation just means the process of more people falling into tenuous economic circumstances. It's a common topic of discussion in the US....the only difference is that word doesn't really exist in casual English.

That is the perfect example how silly this is.


But the disappointing part is that this "data mesh" apparently had nothing to do with the NSA or with automated surveillance in any way: according to this article[1], it was just a matter of some rather uninspired BKA types sitting on their hind quarters, typing a few words into Google, and stumbling on his public writings (or things others had written about him). In the old days, they would have trolled a few bars, planted a few informants here and there, and come up with pretty much the same quality of "evidence" and "leads". (And, thinking back to the anti-RAF days, they quite frequently did).

Orwellian references seem definitely overdrawn, in regard to this case.

[1] http://www.taz.de/!3471/

The summary is misleading. The person in question is Andrej Holm; the word matching algorithm did not directly lead to the search of his home and his arrest. It led to an investigation (in conjunction with his known extremist leanings); the warrants for the search and the arrest were based on his meetings and mail exchanges with the suspect in an arson case [1] (that suspect was later convicted of attempted arson and membership in a criminal organization).

That said, while there was plenty of probable cause to justify a search warrant [2] (as far as I can tell), the arrest warrant was all kinds of questionable, even considering the additional incriminating evidence that was found as the result of the search [3]. As the Federal Court of Justice noted when they vacated the arrest warrant [1], all the prosecution could prove was him having connections with the extreme left, but no evidence that he was involved in terrorist activities. And having extreme left sympathies and writing extreme left articles may be criminally stupid, but it's not a crime.

With regard to "bursting into their Berlin home", the article also does not mention that Holm had been a member of the "Wachregiment Feliks Dzierzynski" [4], an elite paramilitary regiment under the command of the Stasi. Together with Holm's undoubted connections with the extreme left, law enforcement could be excused for assuming that he may be dangerous.

The real concern is that the prosecution kept pushing even when it became increasingly clear that they caught the wrong guy (along with the actual perpetrators); thankfully, the courts would have none of it (this time).

[1] http://juris.bundesgerichtshof.de/cgi-bin/rechtsprechung/doc... (judgement vacating the arrest warrant against Andrej Holm, in German)

[2] Strictly speaking, German criminal procedure law has different requirements for searches compared to US law, but there's a "probable cause"-like element, and from the looks of it, the prosecution would have had probable cause under the US standard, too.

[3] The standard for an arrest warrant is "dringender Tatverdacht", meaning that the suspect is very likely to be the perpetrator, based upon available evidence; it's a higher standard than what is necessary to prosecute, which requires only that a conviction is likely, not very likely. An additional requirement for an arrest warrant is that the suspect is either (1) likely to flee or to (2) engage in obstruction of justice or (3) has been previously convicted of serious crimes and there is substantive evidence that he or she may commit other serious crimes.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Dzerzhinsky_Guards_Regime...

Thank you for providing all of the above.

Was the German Police tipped by the NSA about that alleged terrorist?

From the EFF summary (https://www.eff.org/node/81889) seems to be a movement solely from the German police.

Apparently a group was going around burning things in Germany, and publishing long tracts about their acts. Linguistic analysis seemed to link those tracts to her husbands research papers. The whole "7 words" quote seems to be a (wilful or not) misinterpretation of facts : the writing style was probably similar.

As someone else mentioned, this person used to be a squatter in East Berlin in the 90s , so one could guess a bit of an anti-authority type. At least that's how the reasoning could go.

rtpg a lot like rpg. Clearly a terrorist. At least that's how the reasoning could go. FFS.

No, they were "tipped off" by some Google searches they did at their own desks. There's nothing to suggest that any surveillance of private communications (by any agencies) had anything to do with the initial investigation. Nor was there anything "high-tech" about the research the investigators did before obtaining their warrants (beyond using Google).

Fwiw, there are parts of the German government who are really pro liberty, and have been actively seeking security and privacy startups relocating to Berlin.

I predict pretty amazing things due to ccc, the general attractiveness of Berlin as a place to live, cost (half of the Bay Area), less crappy immigration policies, and the privacy/security brand due to people like Poitras.

Germany also is one of the only places to offer the Blue Card, which rocks. After 21 months if you can speak decent German you can live and work anywhere in the EU (except for Denmark, UK, and Ireland).

If I'm not mistaken, when going the Blue Card route, you can get a permanent residence visa after 33 months even without B1 German.

The problem with the Blue Card, from my [non-German/EU citizen] perspective, is that it's a work visa, which means you must have a job offer, and one that pays at least 37K EUR annually, to get the visa. Likewise if you lose that job, you've got just a short time to find another one or get out. The Blue Card is not a visa for those expecting to work at a German startup and compensated mostly with equity. In other words, not a visa for most founders.

I guess as a founder without a significant amount of money to invest it's hard to stay in almost any foreign country. At least the Blue Card makes it at easy as possible for people, who got employed there.

As mentioned above, you could check out the Dutch American Friendship Treaty if you happen to be from the US.

I realize pay scales are different in the EU than in the US, but 37K isn't a ridiculously high burden, is it? If so I'm surprised the offices of Dublin startups aren't packed with germans because that would be considered very low for a qualified engineer.

One could also check out the Dutch American Friendship Treaty if able to self-employ and likes the Netherlands.

A lot of security companies are setting up here - especially secure email companies: Lavaboom, Whiteout, Tutanota

There are a lot more nice places to live in Germany. Berlin is not that cheap anymore (wages in IT are probably half of that in the Bay Area). As more people move to Berlin, the costs of living will be more like those of London in 10 years from now.

As more people move to Berlin, the costs of living will be more like those of London in 10 years from now.

Not necessarily. Rising prices in desirable cities is not a law of nature; it's a political principle, because most Western cities restrict development, leading to supply shortfalls and price rises. Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City describes both the political dynamics and their problems well: http://www.amazon.com/Triumph-City-Greatest-Invention-Health...

Berlin seems like a particularly easy part of Germany for people who don't yet speak fluent German, which probably shouldn't be underestimated.

I'm reminded of (but don't really agree with) "The Awful German Language by Mark Twain". [EN] http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/awfgrmlg.html [DE link] http://usa.usembassy.de/classroom/Mark%20Twain/Mark%20Twain%...

I don't know. I live in Cologne and everyone here speaks English - so well that I haven't picked up much German.

Maybe so if you live right in the middle of Cologne city. We live about 20mins north of Cologne, and finds that the language barrier is very real, especially when trying to form social bonds with the local population.

Having visited Berlin once, a couple of years ago. I felt that not being to speak German is less of a obstacle than in other German cities.

I imagine 20mins out of Berlin the English speaking pop also goes down. Generally in German cities people speak English. 64% of the population.

Berlin has a lot of vacant or underutilized housing stock compared to other cities. I expect we'll see gentrification like we've seen in NYC, but not SF, or Vancouver style housing booms. I.e. neighborhoods get popular and get expensive, driving the poor, aspirational types to cheaper neighborhoods.

> Berlin has a lot of vacant or underutilized housing stock compared to other cities.

It's diminishing rapidly, however, I'm still typing this from 1600 square feet at what is the exact Berlin analog of 24th and Mission—for which I pay a completely mindbendingly outrageous-to-Berliners $2100 each month.

In four years it will be twice that, as it has doubled in the last four years. However, much can be built and done in that time.

> However, much can be built and done in that time.

Rent caps are one thing that is changing, also the real estate agent's fee must now be paid by the landlord (which is a great idea, why the tenant has to pay it seems crazy to me).


The tenant will still pay, just in the form of increased rent. Costs pass through to prices. Landlords don't own property to lose money.

Also, there is the freedom of movement to consider (traveling between European countries has gotten easier; traveling between North American countries has gotten harder) and universal healthcare.

Yes, travelling is a lot easier across countries in the EU - but many European countries (including Germany) issue biometric passports which require your fingerprints. If you refuse to be fingerprinted, you are unlikely to be issued a passport. The fact that people consent to this shows that we have a sometimes contradictory stance on matters of privacy and data collection.

Back in October 2013, the European Court of Justice ruled that collecting fingerprints was a privacy incursion but that the greater need for security outweighed the privacy concern.

many European countries (including Germany) issue biometric passports which require your fingerprints. If you refuse to be fingerprinted, you are unlikely to be issued a passport.

Not true. I applied for a new German passport recently. They said "we can give you the biometric one - costs more, takes longer to process, has to be made in Germany and sent here ... or we can give you the normal one. The normal one's fine unless you want to go to 'certain' countries .. notably the US." I said give me the normal one, I've had enough of that country's immigration bullshit already.

TLDR: US' fault, not Germany's.

In 2008 I had to get a biometrical passport because my flight back from Costa Rica went through Miami. The passports where at a pilot phase so they were twice as expensive and only valid for 5 years. Once in Miami they didn't had the tech to read the biometrical data from the passport …

250$ for a Passport + 10$ for a phone call to the us embassy in Switzerland (yes, they only gave out information when calling their 4$/minute hotline) for 3 hours of waiting for my connecting flight. Thanks a lot.

Ah, and of course they did take fingerprints from all fingers and photos for their own database.

The fingerprint situation on papers is a mess:

Since 2007 German passports must contain two fingerprints. They're encrypted with a key held by the German government, (claimed to be) stored on the passport only.

German ID cards can contain two fingerprints. Besides being optional, the same rules as for passports apply.

On entry to the USA they don't seem to actually use the fingerprint data on the passport, and they require you to give ten fingerprints plus photo.

The original claim is that the US required them. By now, many countries require the data on passports. But none of them seem to read it on foreign passports, and from what I understand they're not able to.

So the main reason is that the requirement exists to force countries to provider a higher baseline against forgery. Alternatively they planned to access the fingerprints, but countries couldn't agree on a common standard and ACL system, or the USA got screwed because they required "digitally stored fingerprints", which they got (hence _two_ fingerprints) - but not in a format they can actually use.

I kinda like that last option ;-)

Wow, huge points for effort :)

One of the reasons biometric passports spreaded so fast, was because the US required all foreign passport issued after 2006 to be biometric as specified by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Within the EU (or Schengen Area to be precise) you don't need a passport to travel. An ID which is not biometric in most countries is sufficent.

What is the threat model for government knowing your fingerprints?

There are clear issues with communications - words taken out of context could paint you as all kinds of illegal/disagreeable things and land you in jail and/or destroy your career. Metadata is pretty much exclusively useful for guilt by association.

What bad things can happen if the government knows your fingerprints? What makes fingerprints any different from the other information on your passport? If the objection is that they are more difficult to fake... well, that's sort of the point.

Are we afraid that someone is going to take fingerprints from the passport database and plant them at crime scenes? Use them to unlock your iPhone while you're in custody? If you already warrant that kind of special attention, authorities will have no trouble getting your fingerprints anyway.,

> What bad things can happen if the government knows your fingerprints? What makes fingerprints any different from the other information on your passport? If the objection is that they are more difficult to fake... well, that's sort of the point.

A database of fingerprints[1] should contain the prints of as many criminals as possible and as few non-criminals as possible.

This reduces the possibility of false possibilities which carry a real chance of death if the police turn up to your house with guns.

Those false positives also distract efforts from the actual criminals.

And then there's the risk of feature creep - see also the vast misuse of social security numbers in the US.

Finally: a fingerprint is pretty much the definition of personal info and so anyone collecting and storing that information should have clear regulation about the use and storage of that information.

[2] also DNA. The English DNA database is scary.

> This reduces the possibility of false possibilities which carry a real chance of death if the police turn up to your house with guns

In 2012, German police shot at people a grand total of 36 times. 35 of those 36 incidents were pure self defense situations ("life threatening situation"), resulting in 8 people killed. One incident was a shot at a fleeing subject, resulting in injury.

There were 54 warning shots and 14 shots on physical objects (tires, doors).

2012 was not an exceptional year, the trend is generally downwards (656 cases with 109 fatalities since 1998) Oh, and unlike England police in Germany are generally armed. They just don't use those firearms except as a last, last resort.

So the "real chance of you death" because of police showing up at your door is zero. I still don't like fingerprints in my passport.


First, the German government claims that the fingerprints aren't stored in a database, but only stored on the passport (using a different key than for the regular data, to restrict access) and otherwise destroyed during the production process. The stated purpose is to verify the authenticity of the passport.

No idea if that's actually true and if it's implemented sanely - if not, I can only hope for a whistleblower to report the difference between claim (and law) and implementation, which is an issue.

Second, the national ID card has no fingerprint requirement.

Third, as a German you need a passport only for international travel outside the Schengen zone: travel to the US, and _they_ collect another set of fingerprints (and photo) on every entry. Other countries have similar policies. For all I know, those fingerprints _are_ taken for the express purpose of keeping them in a database.

I'm not a friend of the fingerprint policy, and it's hard to prove that there are no databases generated as a by-product. But it's not the full blown disaster that people make of it.

> This reduces the possibility of false possibilities which carry a real chance of death if the police turn up to your house with guns.

How unreliable are fingerprints? Statistics would be interesting. DNA is pretty damn accurate, as I understand it.

Containing a higher proportion of criminials does not reduce the probability of a false positive. Merely having committed a crime in the past may mean you are more likely to commit a crime in the future, but it does not make it any more likely that you have committed any particular crime under investigation. This statement only seems to work if we are okay with sending any criminal to jail for any crime, rather than the specific crime that he/she actually committed.

> Finally: a fingerprint is pretty much the definition of personal info

That's a purely dogmatic argument. Why is the statement that "all personal information ought to also be considered private" justified?

Also, people leave their fingerprints everywhere anyway.

I agree with you on DNA, but don't forget - a fingerprint should be a username, not a password.

Yes, same with DNA.

> A database of fingerprints[1] should contain the prints of as many criminals as possible and as few non-criminals as possible.

Collecting fingerprints does not automatically mean the database is used in criminal investigation. Portugal has collected fingerprints in national ID cards since 1974, with provisions for limiting access to the database to selected organizations within the government. The end result is that this database is not used in criminal investigation. If it were, the court case would be thrown immediately.

Needless to say, biometric passports caused zero fuss here.

Some joker could lift your prints and leave them all over a crimescene. Government databases (especially local governments) are not usually very secure.

In what way is Germany more safe? Pretty ridiculous. But if you consider TAZ to be radical ha ha humm...

See: Vorratsdatenspeicherung, TED Talk by Malte Spitz, George Maaßen. Laws don't apply here to the intelligence apparatus either.

At least the supreme court overturned Vorratsdatenspeicherung in its former form. Hopefully the Pirateparty will manage to pull itself together and be a good oppositional force in parliament one day.

What a strange world we live in where people escaping surveillance move to Berlin.

A lot of modern Germany is defined by backlash against past horrors. Germany's close relationship with Israel, for example.

But they still have id cards and registering with police when you move :-(

With a county office, not the police.

It doesn't matter too much since most people are somewhere "in the system" anyway: pretty much everyone is registered with various social security systems, employed people are known through income tax handling, etc.

(We also have rather strict rules on name changes and other means that could allow someone to make themselves disappear)

there are similar mechanisms in the US . in many cities, a landlord is required to register a tenant. similarly, purchase of real property is public record...

Tenant could be an LLC registered in a jurisdiction that doesn't require disclosure of ownership or directors.

Only Snowden really needed to escape the NSA and he didn't go to Germany. By the looks of it, they would turn him over in a heartbeat.

While I haven't read it, yet, I see film maker and journalist Laura Poitras at the top of the article. One reason she's described in interviews for moving, is that she could not pass through U.S. border control and customs without enduring an extensive search and the likely confiscation of all her digital equipment.

Perhaps that's not directly the NSA. But it's a legitimate reason to have a home somewhere that does not constantly put you through such. And she's not the only one in such a position.

I agree with your opinion that the German government and agencies may not be the most sympathetic. A significant portion of the German public, on the other hand...

The Stasi are still a fairly fresh memory, for many.

>The Stasi are still a fairly fresh memory, for many.

Including, no doubt, for the chancellor, Angela Merkel.

"She is ... the first German Chancellor to be born after World War II, and the first post-reunification Chancellor to be raised in the former East Germany" [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_Merkel]

My impression is that she was upset about her own phone, but not too much about the rest.

Also, as I recall, rumor is that behind the scenes, the German government was already clued in on much of what was going on.

And... various aspects of the German governments (Federal as well as the states, etc.) continue to be pretty aggressive about pushing spyware and otherwise insisting a unilateral "right" to do whatever they damn well please.

However, they are part of the EU. And border control is thereby not so easy to just zip up. Nor, perhaps, would the population stand for something so overt, as opposed to covert.

It's not rumors, Germany has their own full-fledged NSA-equivalent (the BND) spying on the populace cooperating with the NSA as a Tier 2 nation.

The German government was not just complicit, they were actively pushing for wider surveillance on their own citizens. Likely this is part of the motivation for the rumblings about European-based Internet services: the BND would have more negotiating leverage and power if they could directly access e.g. Facebook servers rather than having to go through the NSA.

Including, no doubt, for the chancellor, Angela Merkel.

"Concerned", perhaps yes. But not so much as to prevent her from not only joining the FDJ, but joining the local district board as well, and becoming its secretary for Agitprop:


She is also a complete joke...

I've only read about half of the article so far, but it's pretty clear they're not talking about people the US wants extradited; that's a completely different story.

These are activists who ostensibly haven't committed any crimes, but suspect they're under surveillance, or get harassed for being activists and want to go somewhere where the culture seems to be deeply and overtly set against state sponsored spying on the populace.

Poitras wasn't being stopped at airports because she was an activist - she was stopped because she was under suspicion for allegedly having foreknowledge of a planned insurgent attack against US troops in Iraq and filming it from the rooftops instead of warning them. She initially denied that she was the woman the troops saw filming from the rooftop during the initial military investigation, then later admitted to it in an e-mail to John Bruning, author of The Devil's Sandbox.

[1] https://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/soldiers-allege-laura-p...

As someone who believes in the rule of law, I don't find these assertions particularly compelling, or even relevant. If Poitras committed a crime or was suspected of committing a crime, she should be charged and entitled to defend her actions in open court in front of a jury of her peers.

But what reportedly happened to her--since we're talking about Germany--reminds me of some of the Stasi's zersetzung: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zersetzung. Instead of enforcing laws, she was repeatedly harassed, seemingly with the intent to intimidate and destabilize her and her work.

> If Poitras [...] was suspected of committing a crime, she should be charged

If she was suspected of committing a crime, she should be investigated to determine whether or not there's sufficient evidence to show that she did commit the crime. You don't charge someone with a crime until you're fairly sure they committed it. Questioning her at the airport is one means of investigation.

Based on the descriptions given in the two articles I linked to, she traveled out of country 40 times over the course of 6 years, went to places like Iraq and Yemen, and openly hung out with Sunni insurgents and two close associates of Osama bin Laden - on top of already being reported filming at the scene of an ambush on US troops that resulted in multiple casualties. Maybe she didn't do anything, but the border control agents wouldn't have been doing their jobs if they didn't stop her and investigate.

Unless Poitras committed 40 different crimes or various crimes spanning 6 years, I think there's still something to be said about the rule of law based on what's been reported...which I think we both agree may not be the full story.

It's one thing to question/investigate someone in conjunction with specific, credible evidence as part of a larger, legitimate investigation; but having your devices searched or being questioned repeatedly at border crossings dozens of times over six years--especially for someone at least occasionally based in NYC who could have trivially been visited by law enforcement while home--seems a lot more likely to be part of an intimidation strategy than a legitimate investigation.

Is there a legal obligation for warzone journalists to disclose such information if they have it? That would seem like a very dangerous provision - for one, it would provide a strong incentive for the opposite party in an armed conflict to actively target them/prevent them from doing their job.

Even if there is, I don't see how the circumstance that no charges were filed and apparently the authorities instead chose to take the route of (retaliatory?) extralegal harassment is compatible with the rule of law.

I'm not sure on the legality since it happened in a war zone. Over here in a non-war zone, I certainly can be held liable for criminal negligence if I've received credible evidence that someone is going to attacked and I do nothing to report it to the authorities. She was hanging around some questionably dangerous folks, so I'm sure if she did know she could have made an argument that the circumstances prevented her from notifying the troops without putting her own life at risk. And, of course, she might not have known about it to begin with and was just randomly filming.

On the other hand, telling the investigators that she wasn't the person filming at the scene of the attack and then later recanting it is certainly enough to raise some eyebrows. Certainly not enough to convict someone of a crime, though, which is likely the reason why she was repeatedly searched and questioned but never arrested or indicted. She might call it harassment, but the authorities call it investigation.

So why search her only at the border then, rather than obtain a warrant to search her domicile? (Please correct me if this in fact did occur as well.)

If this was indeed an investigation passing usual legal requirements with the intent to build a case against her, I'd imagine that any responsible investigator would at the very least choose to do that as well. If they repeatedly searched her at the border (thus essentially abusing an avenue which had its legal hurdles significantly reduced for the ostensible sake of national security and being able to deal with external threats that the internal legal system had no time and opportunity to handle through regular channels) but did not choose to obtain a warrant or otherwise start a legal process that comes with the normal set of safeguards, I'd say that strongly seems to indicate they did not have enough of a case against her - or, in other words, that an investigation was perpetuated which according to traditional legal standards should have been discontinued.

Now, of course you may argue for the traditional standards/safeguards themselves to be weakened (e.g. by saying that while searches of one's home should remain subject to the same legal restrictions, certain parts of the government now also shall have the privilege to conduct some sort of "preliminary searches" which do not come with the usual safeguards to arbitary ends which might include a more formal investigation being started, at their full discretion), but this is not how I usually see this debate being framed.

The most plausible reason to me would just be the fact that it's DHS doing the searching, not FBI. Border control has very broad authority to search and question anyone coming into the US, and some office at DHS may be very interested in her but the equivalent office at FBI might not have the time or inclination to pursue it further, especially if the searches and questioning keep turning up nothing. I worked in the military in the past and have seen plenty of examples of government organizations with different but slightly overlapping missions. They tend to step on each others' toes just as often if not more often than they work together effectively.

I also have no idea if the FBI pursued it further and got a warrant. They're under no obligation to inform someone that they're under investigation. They may very well have started up a case against her that's still open, or may have investigated her and eventually dropped the case, or may not have done anything at all. In any case, they've never charged her with a crime and she's never been arrested.

I see how this being a DHS endeavour would give rise to the observations, but why would the offense in question, assuming it is one, be a homeland security rather than FBI or military police matter?

Only because border control falls under the purview of DHS. If they did find something illegal, as far as I know all they could do is either deny her entry or hand her and the evidence they collected over to the FBI and see if the DOJ wants to bring charges.

It definitely wouldn't be a matter for the military police - since she isn't a member of the military she isn't subject to the UCMJ. The only reason they would have done anything in Iraq would be because Poitras was in a war zone outside US territory. They, again, would have had to hand her over to the DOJ for prosecution.

The role of the media in democracy is crucial to the way of life of citizens that make up its political constituency. Because of this, war correspondents must stick to ideas of “responsibility”, “objectivity”, and “truth” in order to ensure that the public and democratic institutions remain aware of the wider issues involved.

She initially denied that she was the woman the troops saw filming from the rooftop during the initial military investigation, then later admitted to it in an e-mail to John Bruning, author of The Devil's Sandbox.

According to the article you cite, she didn't admit to being the person the soldiers saw "filming from the rooftop" during the attack. But rather, to quote the article verbatim, "that she had in fact been on the roof that day."

Presumably you understand that these are different things.

To be clear this is an allegation only.

Furthermore Poitras believes in a type of journalism that does not interfere with events. She believes in documenting what happens without trying to influence them. But I suppose that there is probably some law, some where that states that in war zones not disclosing information is a crime.

Finally if this were true at all we can ask why she hasn't been arrested. Why should she be stopped and harassed but not arrested if the government has evidence that this is true?

"Poitras wasn't being stopped at airports because she was an activist - she was stopped because she was under suspicion for allegedly having foreknowledge of a planned insurgent attack against US troops in Iraq and filming it from the rooftops instead of warning them."

Sure, Poitras detention had nothing to do with Snowden, Obama is a pacifist, Ukraine is in Africa, Putin is a democrat and I am Marry Poppins!!!

Dude, check the dates - she started complaining about being stopped for questioning at airports in 2006.


Ooops, you're right. I'm not Marry Poppins, after all. Sorry for the outburst.

Snowden applied for political asylum in Germany. However, the law says you must be within Germany to do that and Snowden considered that too dangerous. The government can make exceptions to that rule but apparently they considered it too dangerous with respect to the USA relations.

Last time I looked there are few places in Germany that are further away than 300km or so from a place that is controlled by the USA or UK.

That's a good three hours to essentially get anyone outside Germany's jurisdiction if the USA really wants to force the issue "extraordinary rendition" style.

Given how much Germany (both government and populace) cared when it was about a German citizen, I doubt there would be notable outrage when it's about an American.

That's because the Snowden leaks are not a real threat. None of the documents contained anything about the "real" classified technologies; they only confirmed what everyone knew anyway.

If Snowden had leaked usable information about microwave weapons and quantum computers the Russians would not have merely accepted him... they'd be willing to go to war for him.

Makes you wonder if the Snowden leaks weren't just a big PsyOp on the BRICS. ;)

> That's because the Snowden leaks are not a real threat. None of the documents contained anything about the "real" classified technologies; they only confirmed what everyone knew anyway.

This opinion is understated.

While I wouldn't go as far as to make guesses as to what the real classified data is now-a-days, I would like to point out that nearly all of the reveals thus far from the recent round of whistleblowers read basically like the transcripts to the cypherpunks mailing list over the past twenty years.

My fear is that everyone will gloss over that, and then continue discrediting such lists and their users far into the future as 'tinfoil hattery' and the like.

I'm sure the NSA has a free-reign there. Even if the BND cannot spy internally, they could just ask the NSA for what they need.

You've got a point: Recently found that NSA has full access to my Internet provider https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/14/nsa-stellar/

Admire the confidence how you say that. If this is the case, what is use of having the laws that prevent privacy issues?

What the article misses are two important points.

1. Berlin politics is less hyper-media based

One of the benefit of Berlin isn't added liberty but a less hyper-media based political environment. One can see this in how the various political "Stiftung" funded and continue to fund open discourse around the issue of the surveillance. This environment may also be part to blame for the lack of strong response, but it may also be partially responsible for Appelbaum and Laura still being able to get their visa's renewed.

2. It's just the better ghetto

The truth is there is nowhere safe for digital activists right now. That is to say there is nowhere that any of the people interviewed could live to reduce their need to worry if their house is being monitored. There is no country, of sufficient weight, that has proven they would not bend their will to that of a greater power. With there being no safe place, peace of mind can be found more easily in a ghetto with like minded individuals. And berlin, definitely when it comes to digital rights and privacy, has a very lively ghetto. You may not be safer in Berlin, but at least you are not alone

A random thought occurred to me while reading this. As soon as we are out in space, surveillance becomes very hard.

Yeah, but who is "we"? If power structures on Earth keep growing and working hard to sink their fangs deeper into anything that could challenge their power, I'm not really sure people, or even machines, just moving off to live as they please elsewhere will actually be a thing, not if it can be avoided. That's just not in the spirit of things as they are currently going. Oppressive empires aren't keen on letting people escape and regroup elsewhere. On the other hand, sometimes they can't help it, so here's hoping.

Very interesting to me that the author heard nothing of Assange hints that Anke Domscheit-Berg is probably a US spy. Guardian, still angry at Julian?

Do these digital exiles go and register with the German police as they are required to by law?

They likely register with their county's office (if being a resident for more than 6 weeks), as required by law.

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