Stone Age Solutions to Surveillance - Age Week


By Sara Coughlin

Image courtesy of Pixabay user 15299.

A year after the Kremlin made the decision to purchase 20 electronic typewriters to avoid digital leaks in their communications data, the German government is doing them one better. In an interview with the German TV show Morgenmagazin, chairman of the National Security Council Patrick Sensburg explained that they plan to incorporate typewriters into their methods of documentation and collection, adding that they are “not electronic models either.” When pressed to be serious, Sensburg insisted it was “no joke.”

Of course, Germany is a developed, modern nation that still employs digital efforts to maintain security.  Since last year, encrypted mobile phones have been the only approved mode of telecommunication for government officials. They are also in current communication with Blackberry over designing new future cell phones that feature improved anti-tapping technology.

However, a recent incident in which two members of the German parliament had their phones compromised may have shook the NSA’s confidence in digital devices. The decision to use manual typewriters came only days after the news.

Using a primitive typing machine in a nation so known for efficiency may seem extreme until one considers the mounting anxiety within the German NSA. Suspicions that Germany’s NSA is being infiltrated by the CIA continue to increase, especially since there were accusations of American forces spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel. In an outraged statement to President Obama regarding tapping her cell phone, Merkel compared the American NSA’s practices to those of the Stasi. Although drastic, the sentiment behind her comparison encapsulates the nation’s fear of surveillance.

Then, just few weeks ago, employees of German spy agency BND were arrested and accused of sending sensitive information back to the American CIA. The animosity came to an official head when the CIA’s German station chief was removed from the country. In an attempt to remind the public of how the relationship between Germany and the US is intended to function, Chancellor Merkel stated that, “Spying on allies is a waste of energy in the end.”

Merkel reveals something vital about what is personally and figuratively at stake for Germany in both her statements to Obama and her announcement of the chief’s removal from the country. Germany has a difficult and lengthy relationship with surveillance, and at this point in time, it’s likely that they both hope to learn from their history while amending the security practices they use today.

Because the legacy of constant observation remains so ingrained in Germany’s public memory, perhaps the desire to regress technologically, to the point of foregoing screens altogether, becomes less of a novelty. If the information they hope to safeguard is only available on one piece of paper and not accessible through wires, it naturally becomes harder to breach.

It isn’t just typewriters that returned to everyday use for the German NSA. Classical music also made a decade-defying comeback at their headquarters, where conference rooms have Edvard Grieg’s piano concert in A minor playing in the background. Not only do the sounds create ambience, they also work to thwart any attempts at unwanted eavesdropping.

Regressive technological modifications in governmental procedures, as strange as they may appear, seemingly started to trickle down into civilian life, in ways that are, perhaps, more seamlessly non-digital. A translated report from German daily newspaper Die Welt states that “people are trying to stay away from technology whenever they can,” and that “those concerned talk less on the phone, prefer to meet in person. More coffees are being drunk and lunches eaten together. Even the walk in the park is increasingly enjoying a revival.”

Could these interactive cultural trends be the social upside to a national government’s internal paranoia?

Of course, political criticism amounted. Christian Flisek, a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (the major opponent to Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany), scoffed at these newly imposed procedures.

“The idea that we can protect people from surveillance by dragging them back to the typewriter is absurd,” he told Spiegel Online.

After all, Morgenmagazin sought to find the humor in Sensburg’s initial announcement. Facing potentially further or continuing infiltration from the CIA, Germany stands at an impasse, divided on how to collect their nation’s information, how to maintain and protect any sensitive data, and, most pressingly, whether to trust what modern technology offers them or to retreat to methods of the past.