Spying, data collection and the coercion problem

I think I held back for long enough; I suppose the media will indeed not go after the real problems.*

The issue of population surveillance can be divided by domestic/foreign, government/private, government/government, business/private and it's all very different.

Germans (and foreigners in Germany) have a constitutional right to not be spied upon or be under surveillance. This was established by the German federal constitutional court three decades ago in a ruling on a case about the German census.

Surveillance and spying do also incur costs, so both the situation of the people's rights and costs allow the conclusion that spying on us or having us under surveillance requires a good justification. The burden of proof is thus on the proponents of spying and surveillance.

That's the point where I actually could conclude this blog post, because the proponent's cases for any spying that's not near-consensus (such as observation of Mafia members and the like) have been utterly ridiculous and disproved with such impressive regularity that their credible is even worse than a government politician's credibility in general.

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We shouldn't let the case rest, though. Knowledge is power, and power needs to be tamed and legitimated in a society or it will tear it apart and replace it with another kind of society - autocratic, plutocratic or other.
An agency which knows a lot on us can misuse its knowledge (or be misused itself) to political ends.

A CEO may be blackmailed into accepting a poor deal.
A bureaucrat who wants to expose a scandal may be discredited or blackmailed with information.
A rising star politician may be damaged by revelations while government politicians who did the same are not.
A member of parliament may be blackmailed into voting a certain way.
In fact, a foreign power's government may blackmail our politicians into acting against our interest and in their interest.

Knowledge is power, and to not protect this knowledge and to not deter the acquisition of such knowledge means to yield power to those who are not democratically legitimated to wield this power. A democracy yielding such power needlessly to government officials or even foreigners becomes less self-determined, less democratic. According to the German constitution, power originates from the people and is being lent to people in government based on democratic legitimation (through votes and plebiscites). Power just slipping away on another route is not constitutional. Foreigners are not supposed to be able to exert power over the German state; that would be counter to the very sovereignty. Likewise, our own officials should not wield other powers than those legitimated democratically and thus legally.

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Domestic spying and surveillance has another, very bad problem: It's an important ingredient in autocratic governments, and to set up the laws, the public tolerance, the tools, the agency with personnel and the databases for such an autocratic government in advance is a very stupid idea. We shouldn't make it so very easy for them, just in case we fail to keep dangerous idiots away from power and turn into an autocratic society sometime again. At least make it harder for the dangerous idiots to pull off such a transition towards dictatorship, and keep them from exploiting accumulated data spanning back years or decades!
This point is one which our politicians don't get. They simply cannot imagine that they themselves could be evil or turn evil, and they wouldn't make it to top politicians if their ability to think far ahead wasn't concentrated on their career alone.

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The business/private spying and surveillance is a different matter. This is about ripping us off. Businesses collect data not only in order to supply us with goods and services which meet our preferences better: They collect data in order to have more profitable business relationships with us. This is very often to our disadvantage, not a win-win. It also provokes a lot of annoyances. I had four advertisements of computer stuff in my mail the first week after I bought a computer sometime in the mid-90's. Even back then, the information about my computer purchase was traded and lots of companies began to annoy me. I try to avoid that companies learn about my real contact address ever since.
The problem is especially evident (and tricky) in the insurance sector, where companies have good statistical methods to predict the costs you'll incur to them if they know a lot about you. Then again, them guessing instead is not really good for the insurance market outcome either.

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Now what should German politicians do in light of foreign spying and data collection on us?
(1) Make sure none of our government agencies is tolerant or even supportive of such behaviour.
(2) Expose any such activities.
(3) Encourage (if not fund) defensive measures.
(4) Restrict such activities domestically (= kick the relevant personnel out, including persona non grata status for embassy and consulate personnel regardless of other relationships).
(5) Consider supportive legislative changes (criminal code).
(6) Sanction the offending countries.
(7) Reply in kind if nothing else matters; retribution in kind.

None of this appears to happen. So either the German politicians don't think the issue is serious or the blackmailing already took effect and Germans already lost some sovereignty in this regard. So far I think they're too trusting.

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One might also think about whether another country spying and collecting on us is a hostile act or not.
I suppose the red line is to hostility would be crossed if
(1) The activity is meant to harm us, but not benefit them directly.
(2) The activity is indeed blackmailing, an offence against our sovereignty.
Foreign government/domestic business or foreign government/our government activities are the same in this regard. Government contractors count as agents of their government and thus as part thereof in this regard..

The week after hostilities against us were discovered we should rethink any alliance with the hostile power. So far I think the activities don't meet (a) or (b), at least not (a) intentionally. Whoever does covert missions on us does most likely expect some benefit from it.

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The typical German discussion on espionage and data collection focuses on the experience of the private individual or on the example of the East German state and its Stasi's domestic surveillance and oppression. I believe we should pay more attention to the vulnerability of our democracy through the "knowledge is power" venue; blackmail and denunciation.
The question whether all companies and governments of the world know what messages I personally sent through the internet is in my opinion negligible in comparison to the prospect of another power exerting illegitimate influence on our top politicians. This holds true at least till we get federal-level plebiscites for direct legislation on important matters.

*: I was curious and waited and waited and waited, but the mainstream media appears to be utterly disinterested in these aspects.


  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymkA1N3oFwg
    google is going to blackmail you.

    Why should blackmailing stop with politicians? Any organization without a capable protection of information security can be manipulated via blackmail. You can take all the small wheels, make them turn slightly different and you get a totally different output.
    In order to establish security, we need an information protection organization that provides a safe infrastructure for our transactions. The administrators of such organizations always have the secret capability to turn on big brother supervision and there's no way out, because any one guard is sufficient to pull off the transfer into an information collecting blackmail-cracy.
    A way out is a defence against blackmail that equals slander. Look at the banking sector where rumours about inability to pay are very damaging. Their regulations against such events is a precursor on how to handle/not to handle the threatening blackmail-cracy.
    A more technical solution to limit blackmail is information transfer via several independent security networks without anyone capable of doing overall supervision. Any blackmailer in one network does not have the whole data to reconstruct the message. Increased security will be that even blackmail-crats from several networks combing their messages have no useful data. It's an interesting variant of the Byzantine Generals' Problem.

    1. http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2013/12/fun-google-is-going-to-blackmail-you.html ^^

  2. εκβιασμός = blackmail

    Ekbiasmocracy means rule by blackmail - a new form of gouvernment for the 21st century.