HBR | I was 10 years old when the Berlin Wall came down — old enough to grasp that something important was happening, but not really old enough to understand exactly what was happening. Like a lot of kids born around that age, the specter of communism has never seemed like that much of a threat. We would hear stories about how horrific life was living under conditions such as these; but only in the context of something that had already failed. It's only through history and books or films that my generation has a grasp of what life must have been like.
Just recently, I had the chance to watch the German film, The Lives of Others, which won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Not only is it a remarkable story, but it gave me the best glimpse I've had yet of what day-to-day life must have been like in a state like East Germany. The infamous East German secret police, the Stasi, managed to infiltrate every pay of German life, from factories, to schools, to apartment blocks — the Stasi had eyes and ears everywhere. When East Germany collapsed in 1989, it was reported to have over 90,000 employees and over 170,000 informants. Including the part-time informants, that made for about one in every 63 East Germans collaborating to collect intelligence on their fellow citizens.
You can imagine what that must have meant: people had to live with the fact that every time they said something, there was a very real chance that it was being listened to by someone other than for whom they intended. No secret police force in history has ever spied on its own people on a scale like the Stasi did in East Germany. In large part because of that, those two words — "East Germany" — are indelibly imprinted on the psyche of the West as an example of how important the principles of liberal democracy are in protecting us from such things happening again. And indeed, the idea that it would happen seems anathema to most people in the western world today — almost unthinkable.
And yet, here we are. In terms of the capability to listen to, watch and keep tabs on what its citizens are doing, the East German government could not possibly have dreamed of achieving what the United States government has managed to put in place today.
The execution of these systems is, as you'd expect, very different. The Germans relied upon people, which, even if not entirely effective, must have been absolutely terrifying: if for no other reason than you weren't sure who you could and could not trust. There was always that chance someone was reporting back on you. It might have been a colleague. A neighbor. A shop keeper. A school teacher. Not knowing whether someone you couldn't see was listening to what you had to say, or whether those that you could see might be passing it back to the authorities — that must have taken an incredibly heavy toll on people.
But as any internet entrepreneur will tell you, relying entirely on people makes scaling difficult. Technology, on the other hand, makes it much easier. And that means that in many respects, what has emerged today is almost more pernicious; because that same technology has effectively turned not just some, but every single person you communicate with using technology — your acquaintances, your colleagues, your family and your friends — into those equivalent informants.