Berlin’s Stasi Museum sits inside the former HQ of the secret East German police. From this stark, Brutalist compound, built in 1960 following the Soviet occupation, the Stasi conducted its surveillance of the city.
Months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a huge crowd stormed the compound to stop the staff from destroying its records. The building has been preserved ever since, its interiors still decorated in mid-century shades of brown, rotary-dial telephones still sitting on desks.
Having recently moved back to Europe from China, I’m used to more advanced methods of surveillance. Yet for all the digital leaps made today, there are parallels between Beijing now and Berlin then. The Stasi had vast numbers of human informants, one per 6.5 East German residents. Beijing, too, relies on a vast network of human censors, outsourced to tech companies.
Surveillance fads also repeat themselves. Last month, the Stasi HQ hosted a Berlin Biennale seminar on the “Digital Divide”, where panellists discussed the ways in which old, disproved theories are recycled in modern surveillance. Shazeda Ahmed, a post-doctorate at Princeton University, described the rise of emotion recognition technology in China. Parents have pressured schools there to give up emotion recognition in classrooms, but some police forces are investing in the technology, hoping that a person’s movements and gestures can signal their propensity to commit a crime.
Such methods fall under the umbrella of “predictive policing”, but they are dangerously unproven. Academics doubt whether gestures can be analysed as discrete events that carry the same meaning from person to person.
Speaking at the Biennale, digital rights lawyer Ramak Molavi gave a historical perspective, comparing emotion-recognition trends today to phrenology and physiognomy, the ideas that a person’s skull shape and facial features indicate their character. Molavi described how the ideas had been discredited, but enjoyed a renaissance during the Nazi regime. Now, he warns, “phrenology is back”.
Many institutions have a tendency to overextend the power of data to observe, appraise and control their subjects. Authoritarian states, in particular, like to extend surveillance even before they know what they can do with the data. Throngs of Stasi agents would hang around petrol stations and embassies on the off-chance something might happen. After the Stasi fell, the Germans had difficulty deciding what to do with the records because of the sheer scale of them, most witnessing nothing of any importance.
Better to see all, goes the logic of the paranoid security state, and then decide what to do with the information. The act of seeing is itself a demonstration of power. Having to wonder if your neighbour was a Stasi agent was another intended effect.
For the past six years, my life in Beijing was similarly visible to the intelligence services there. When I visited the Stasi Museum, I walked through the chambers of the former Stasi head Erich Mielke. I saw the couch he napped on, the note in his kitchenette describing the exact arrangement of his eggs and bread at breakfast. I felt moved by the power of the political change it represented.
Up until then, such change must have seemed unimaginable to those Stasi workers, as it does to me today. So much so, that the protesters who once forcibly occupied the buildings showed their identity cards to the guards, as if they themselves could not comprehend what was about to happen.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s Europe-China correspondent