Blogging against surveillance

Sometime in June of this year I wrote this text which was meant to be published in a magazine which eventually never got to the printer (but still might, so they say). Just in case some people who (only) read English still pass by this blog I’m now dropping it here (in a slightly edited version).

Update: It did get published, in Digital Security for Activists (pdf, 4mb, p. 11-21) by the Riseup collective.

Blogging against surveillance, or: who’s the terrorist?

On July 31 of last year, at 7 in the morning armed police stormed into the apartment where my partner Andrej Holm, I and our two children live. We learned that day that he was a terrorism suspect and that an investigation had been going on for almost a year. Andrej was arrested and flown to Germany’s Court of Justice the next day. The search of our home lasted 15 hours. I was forced to wake my children, dress them and make them have breakfast with an armed policeman watching us. That day my new life started, a life as the partner of one of Germany’s top terrorists.

Andrej spent three weeks in investigative detention. The arrest warrant was signed on grounds that caused a public outcry, not only in Germany but also in many other countries. Open letters were sent to the court that were signed by several thousand people protesting against the arrests. Among the signatures were those of David Harvey, Mike Davis, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett and Peter Marcuse.

What had happened?

Some hours before Germany’s federal police came to us, three men were arrested near Berlin, who were said to have tried to set fire to several army vehicles. The original investigation was started against four other men, of which Andrej is one, who are suspected to be the authors of texts by a group called “militante gruppe” (mg, militant group). The group is known in Germany for damaging property for years, but never using violence against people. The texts claim responsibility for arson attacks against cars and buildings in and around Berlin since 2001. German anti-terror law §129a of the penal code was used to start an anti-terror-investigation against the four. All of them write and publish online. Andrej works as a sociologist on issues such as gentrification and the situation of tenants. Outside academia he is actively involved in tenants‘ organizations and movements that deal with gentrification and urban development. Using words such as ‚gentrification‘, ‚marxist-leninist‘, ‚precarisation‘ oder ‚reproduction‘ in their texts was enough to start complete surveillance (a linguistic analysis by the Federal Police later showed it’s most unlikely they wrote these texts). As we saw later in the files, the profile for the ‚militant group‘ was based on several assumptions: Members of the ‚militant group‘ are assumed to

  • have close ties within the group (all four have been good friends for years)
  • be political activists (of the left)
  • have no prior police record
  • use ‚conspiratorial behaviour‘, such as encrypting email, using anonymous mail addresses (not made of proper first and last names)
  • be critical researchers and as such have access to libraries and a variety of daily papers, a profound political and historical knowledge.

How to make a terrorist

The initial suspicion based on an internet research for similarities in writing and vocabulary led to different measures of surveillance: phone tapping, video cameras pointed at living spaces, emails and internet traffic being monitored, bugging devices in cars, bugging operations on people’s conversations etc. None of these produced valid evidence, so every two or three months surveillance measures were extended. Anti-terror-investigations according to §129a of the penal code are known and infamous for the fact that they are carried out secretly and only less than 5% ever produce enough evidence to lead to actual court cases. The vast majority entail lengthy investigations, during which huge amounts of data (mostly on activists) are collected and after years the case is dropped without anyone ever knowing about it.

Not the ‚terrorist‘ deeds themselves are being prosecuted, but rather membership or support of the said terrorist organization. Therefore investigations focus on ‚who knows who and why‘. For the time being we know of four such cases carried out against 40 activists in Germany last year. Participation in protests against the G8 played a prominent, but not the only role. In all four cases the names of more than 200 people were found in the files that were handed over to the defendants: a good indication of what these investigations are really good for.

In ‚our‘ case most likely all people who had any kind of interaction with Andrej during 2006/07 were checked by the police. Doing this they noticed two meetings that allegedly took place in February and April of 2007 with someone who was later included in the investigation as a fifth suspect, and then two others who were in touch with this ‚No. 5‘.  The two meetings took place under „highly conspiratorial circumstances“: no mobile phones were taken along, the meeting had been arranged through so-called anonymous email accounts and during the meeting – a walk outside – the two turned around several times.

The three who were later included in the investigation are the same three who were arrested after the alleged attempted arson attack. Some hours later special police forces stormed our home and Andrej became ‚the brain behind the militant group‘. My identity changed to being ‚the terrorist’s partner‘.

Becoming ‚the terrorist’s partner‘

I was in shock. All of Berlin was on summer break. The few of us who were not away got together to gather the little we understood about the accusation. The media rejoiced with headlines such as ‚Federal Police finally succeeded in arresting long searched for terror group‘ and we had to deal with media inquiries, talking to lawyers, talking to relatives, talking to friends, colleagues, neighbors and our children. We had to find out about life in prison, start a campaign for donations to pay for lawyers, make a website, agree on how to proceed between a rather heterogeneous group of suspects and even more heterogeneous network of friends and supporters and discuss how to deal with the media.

I realized slowly that my children and I were the collateral damage to this case. My computer was confiscated, things were taken from my desk, all of my belongings searched. My kids (2 and 5 years old last summer) lived through two searches carried out by armed police. Their father was kidnapped and disappeared for weeks.  Being a political activist myself, I am of course aware of the fact that phones can be tapped and that this is used extensively against activists. In Germany close to 40.000 phones (including mobiles) are tapped each year – we have a total population of 80 million. (http://www.bundesnetzagentur.de/media/archive/13600.pdf). To realize and later to read on paper that this concerns you is an entirely different thing from the somewhat abstract idea that you may be subjected to it.

When Andrej was released on bail after three weeks, Germany’s Federal Prosecutor filed a complaint and wanted him back in detention right away, based on the idea that he might flee the country or the danger of repetition. How do you repeat membership in a terrorist organization? One of the many mysteries inside the prosecutors mind. The complaint was not granted right away, but instead Germany’s Court of Justice decided it needed time to reflect thoroughly on the details of the arrest warrant (which was the origin of the huge wave of solidarity that was perceived widely in the media), the question of whether the so-called group actually qualified as ‚terrorist‘ and whether the presented evidence justified detention.

Obvious surveillance

It was impossible to overlook that Andrej was the focus of police observation. Our phones went crazy – not just once did people try to call Andrejs mobile number but ended up in my phone instead. When I in turn also tried to call him, I got my own mailbox talking to me. Our TV behaved oddly (as a result of silent, or stealth pings that were sent to Andrej’s mobile phone regularly to locate him). Emails disappeared.

At some point in the middle of this, I considered starting a weblog about it. Nobody to my knowledge had ever done a blog about living with anti-terror surveillance. It was not an easy decision: were people going to believe me? Would I be portrayed as crazy or paranoid? On the other hand, unlike many other people, I know for certain that surveillance is taking place and why not write about what it feels like? Germany had a major debate about data retention last summer – the law was just passed and was to go into effect 2008 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_retention for details). A new anti-terror federal police law was discussed in parliament and a public debate about data protection grew to dimensions nobody had thought possible some months before. The War on Terror serves to justify more repressive laws here as well. A blog about the consequences of such an investigation to a family that is admittedly interested (and actively involved) in politics, but otherwise not exactly your typical terrorist stereotype opened many eyes.

The idea of blogging had not appealed to me very much before, precisely because I am quite fond of my privacy. Why present my personal daily life to a widely anonymous public? Absurd. But now, when my privacy was already violated beyond anything imaginable, why not talk about what it feels like to people who are more sympathetic than the Federal Prosecutor? Why not talk about how ridiculous the ‚facts‘ to prove the case really are? And there are so many amazingly strange interpretations in the files of how we live our life, of what Andrej said on the phone, of what my mother said on the phone, that I thought nobody would believe these details just a few months later.

A weblog to protect my privacy

I can’t think of many situations when it would make sense to publish details about yourself on a website with the intention to protect your privacy. In this case it did make sense. We were subjected to a powerful and (for us) uncontrollable invasion of our life: we had the said video cameras pointing at the doors of the house we live in, phones tapped, email and internet traffic monitored, mail read, the stealth pings sent to Andrejs mobile phone to locate him every hour, undercover agents following him around and who knows what else. It’s likely that this is going on until now. Surveillance by police and secret services done in a very obvious way for you to notice is (also) meant to scare you, maybe to provoke reactions. Is also meant to scare others who just might have the same inclination to want to make the world a better place. Fear works best when your alone with it.
Publishing details about how this fear is incited is not only a good way to open eyes about how the ‚War on Terror‘ looks likefrom the receiving end but is also a great method to stay sane and get it of (some of) the fear.

And so I started blogging. Mostly in German, basically because I don’t find the time to translate more and maybe also because I thought tha there would be more German readers interested – it is a minor case of terrorism, if you want, and hardly known outside Germany. You can find some texts in English here: http://annalist.noblogs.org/category/en.

Reactions

I wasn’t familiar with the world of blogs, and probably still am not very much. I didn’t have time to find out how to ‚make your blog popular‘ and was not particularly interested in that. I wasn’t really sure how much attention I’d like, and so I started by publishing in the blog the same things I had previously sent by email to people interested in the development of the case and in how we personally were doing. And I only told people I knew about it. It took about three weeks until some of the more popular political German blogs picked it up, wrote about us and the number of visits exploded. In the beginning people wondered whether this, whether I ‚was real‘. The blog got lots of comments and it was obvious that many people were completely shocked about what was going on. They compared the investigation to what they imagined having taken place in the Soviet Union, in China, North Korea, East Germany, but not ‚here‘, in a Western democracy, a constitutional state. Another group consists of people who want to help us secure our privacy by explaining about email encryption, switching SIM cards in mobile phone and the like, not realizing that at least in the first months we actively avoided anything that could only appear as though we wanted to behave in a conspiratorial way, as this was one of the reasons Andrej became a suspect to begin with.

I thought it was pretty funny that being ‚the sociologist’s wife‘ (we are not married), people seemed to assume that Linux or encryption is something I’d never heard of. Many people expressed fear that already by reading my blog or even commenting on it they might endanger themselves. I was glad they did anyway. Others expressed admiration for us to have chosen to be so public about the case. All of this was great and very important support that made it much easier to deal with the ongoing stress and tension that come with the threat of being tried as a terrorist.

Development of the investigation

Fortunately Germany’s Court of Justice took several decisions that were very favorable for Andrej. In a first, two months after the prosecutor’s objection to his release on bail, the court decided not only to not allow the objection, but instead completely withdrew the arrest warrant, arguing that ‚pure assumptions are not sufficient‘. This decision was perceived as a ’slap in the face‘ of Germany’s Federal Prosecutor by many journalists. One months later the same court had to decide whether the ‚militant group‘ can be considered a ‚terrorist organization‘ and decided against this. The German definition for terrorism demands that a terrorist act is meant and able to shake the state to its very foundations, or else to terrify the population as such. When Germany’s minister of justice, Brigitte Zypries, was asked in an interview with Der Spiegel, one of the biggest political weekly magazines, about the case against the alleged members of the ‚militant group‘, she said that she thought that the attacks of September 11 are a terrible tragedy, but in her definition not a terrorist act as it didn’t manage to endanger the American state. We were rather surprised by this, to say the least. In November the Court of Justice decided that the ‚militant group‘ can’t be considered to be terrorist and ordered the other three arrested to be released on bail. At this point, the investigation is being conducted on the basis of §129 (instead of §129a), which prosecutes criminal instead of terrorist organizations, with possible sentences of up to five instead of ten years.

When Andrej was arrested for ‚being terrorist‘, on the grounds of being intelligent, knowing many people from different spheres of society, accessing libraries and publishing texts, being an activist, behaving in what is seen as a conspiratorial way (not always taking the mobile phone along or using encryption) it felt that if this is possible, then it is thinkable that they’d even sentence him to a prison term. With months of public support and more details of the investigation becoming public, like many others, I started believing that this nightmare is terminal, that the case would have to be dropped eventually. Most people don’t realize that the investigation is actually still going on. All of our phone calls are still being listened to, our emails read, Andrej’s every step is being watched. Germany discusses online searches of computers and using hidden cameras in people’s living spaces to detect terrorists, and we know that the secret service is using what the police only dream of. It has been an extremely straining life for a year and a half now, but I am convinced that a good way to survive something like this, which terrorized us, our children, families and friends, is to not go into hiding. I understand the feeling very well of wanting to not move anymore until it’s all over, to not provoke any (legal) action when you’re in the focus of this kind of attention. To do the contrary – seek as much public attention and thus support as possible – was the best thing we could do.

 

More:

Statewatch, Oct 2007: Crime by association

Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen, Oct 21, 2007, The Guardian: Guantánamo in Germany. In the name of the war on terror, our colleagues are being persecuted – for the crime of sociology

 

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8 thoughts on “Blogging against surveillance

  1. Just a support. Did read your text.
    Making things Public, not to be different!
    Just to be part of a whole.
    Good you do it.
    questioning: There is no reason for understanding non-consumerist thinking/activity as terrorist activity.
    Have a good life. greetings

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences while under this investigation. A number of the recent laws in the USA and elsewhere are ridiculous.

  3. Wow, I just read this.. I didn’t realize that the Stazi was still alive and well in germany. I thought that all went away.. Guess I was wrong. Looks like Germany still hasn’t purged all the Nazi influence out of the state… and America has been taking lessons from them. Sorry for you situation. The FBI in america does about the same thing, though not so blantently as it appears you get it.. Don’t know your legal system, perhaps you can sue the state security for incompetent harrasment in deliberatly bungling their survelliance so as to intimidate you. Would be an interesting question to put them to.
    Good luck..

  4. „non-consumerist thinking/activity as terrorist activity“ – that’s the point!

  5. Pingback: Blogging against surveillance | merrybabe's collective blog

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