The Lives of Others

I wrote earlier about PRISM and my thoughts on that, correctly categorised I think, as a rant. Today’s entertainment is definitely political though. The question being addressed is simple.

What is the truth ?


Now before going further, I should clarify that I do not intend a philosophical diversion. There is that moment in conversation between teenaged, often softly goateed young men, where someone asks, affecting a manner suggesting that he may in fact, actually, you know, be the first to have ever contemplated this, “… yes but what is Truth ?”. He is likely to be projecting what he hopes is an intelligent, somewhat distant, enigmatic look. His visage resembling in his mind a solemn portrait by a Master, a sculpture by Rodin.

At this point, a number of options present themselves to the discerning conversationalist. Self-immolation for example. In the absence of flammable materials, alternative exits must be improvised. The horror, darkness, and gasping despair of a witless W.I.T. discussion is impossible to describe, and essential to escape. Survivors often find it hard to talk about. Many require professional counselling. Avoid such situations if possible. Carry a full Zippo at all times when in such company.

No, I mean the simple truth.

As in, given one or more perhaps contradictory explanations for an observed event, which is the true representation of what actually occurred ?


When my mother enquired of the younger me and my trembling siblings “who stole the last Wagon Wheel* ?” she was in search of the simple truth. Not, as I found out, a treatise on coherence versus constructivist theory with a character sketch of Hegel. Her divination method was simple. After posing the question, in typically succint style, she would allow the subsequent discussion to froth and naturally subside. At this key moment, as alibis were worn through with pleading and defences weakened, she would deploy her tactical interrogation weapon.

We knew it as The Look.

A slight lowering and sideways rotation of the head, so as to survey us from an angle, with the whites of her kindly eyes showing. A soft yet almost hypnotic statement … “Now – Truth !” as she peered at each of us in turn.

There was no escape from this truth-ray, this veritas Exocet, as it bore upon you. The guilty party would crumble, sobbing, admitting his offence, vowing never to fail again. Until the next time.

Today’s problem needs the power of The Look, many times over. It seems simple :

1. A young gent called Edward Snowden reveals, by way of wretched Power Points purloined from his employer, colossal and indiscriminate spying by agencies of major Western powers, and France.

2. Western powers and France deny it, then become indignant, then admit it, then say it’s for our own protection. There follows a government free-for-all with mandarins unsure as to whether to boast about their country’s spying prowess or wag their diplomatic finger at their supposed allies for bugging their embassy’s fax machine. See previous thoughts on all that.

3. Technology companies deny they give the NSA “direct access” to their customer data, a key claim of Snowden’s.

4. Internet Service Providers and Telecoms Companies, who it is claimed, allow their data cables to be intercepted thereby giving the agencies “direct access” without having to actually access the tech companies computer systems, remain entirely silent.

5.  The dismal Power Points keep coming, showing cooperation between the tech companies and security services. Allowing the latter access without a warrant  :

“… these communications [ are allowed ] to be collected without an individual warrant if the NSA operative has a 51% belief that the target is not a US citizen and is not on US soil at the time“.

Previous revelations show the UK government sharing it’s findings with the US and vice versa, France collecting data on everyone, and everyone sharing with the Germans. Australia, New Zealand and other minor countries simply proud to be invited to the big boys secret game also get a look-see. It doesn’t matter where the person is or what their nationality is, some agency somewhere believes it has the legal ability to spy, collect, and then trade that data.

As the documents (  from the NSA’s Special Source Operations division ) breathlessly boast, once collected by Prism, the NSA shares its data directly with the CIA and FBI via a custom application :

“The FBI and CIA then can request a copy of Prism collection of any selector [ search ]…These two activities underscore the point that Prism is a team sport !”


Well leaving aside the hearty sportiness of it all, and the difficulty of measuring an NSA operative’s “belief” to an accuracy of one percent, this does not all add up.


Just taking one claim as an example.

CLAIM : Via Snowden, as reported in the Guardian and summarised by The Register on 11th July 2013 :

The agency reported on April 8, 2013 that Microsoft has built PRISM access into Skydrive in such a way as to remove the need for NSA analysts to get special authorization for searches in Microsoft’s cloud.

“Analysts will no longer have to make a special request to SSO for this [ … ]. This success is the result of the FBI working for many months with Microsoft to get this tasking and collection solution established.

COUNTERCLAIM : Via Microsoft Press Release on 11th July 2013 :

“Microsoft does not provide any government with blanket or direct access to SkyDrive,, Skype or any Microsoft product.”

Someone is lying here.

So as not to single Microsoft out, there are similar problems with other technology companies including of course, Google. Who, according to Snowdens leaked documents, began cooperating with the NSA in 2009 :


That’s Google. The company that knows more about you than your mother. You agreed when you signed up to gmail to permit Google to scan all your emails to “better serve you” – to serve you ads. How well it does too ! After Google’s questionable privacy changes, it now not only has your emails, your searches, your browsing habits ( from the web pages that carry Google Ads – you don’t need to click on these to leave your digital footprints with Google ) but now also your photos ( Picassa ), friends ( G+ ), location ( Google Maps ), You Tube history,  app choices ( Google Play ) and even your accent ( Google Voice ) on file and analysed to work out who you are and what you like.

Google is so adept at profiling you, it’s revenue from selling this knowledge to advertisers is now 4 billion dollars. A month. That’s how much it’s worth. In return, you get free email.

What you didn’t agree to, though, is that this highly sensitive and private information would be accessible to anyone in government who has a 51% belief that you are not American, or not on American soil. If you are reading this as an American, in America, feeling relieved, don’t be. The French have no such rules, intercepting all traffic. You are a foreigner to everyone else, including the Brits, who are intercepting your comms and then sharing the information with the NSA.

There is no opt out. There is no equivalent of Google’s admirable “delete my internet history”.

So back to the question. What is the truth ? Someone is lying. Either Snowden is ( or his information is suspect ), the governments are, or the internet companies are ( or they don’t know that they have given “direct access” to the security services ).

Perhaps they do know, but are unable to say. In Microsoft’s press release of 11th July 2013 is the curious phrase :

There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely

I’d like aspects of this debate to be discussed more freely too. Then we could determine the truth. There is no fair judgement possible without first ascertaining what is fact. The difficulty with that is that the agencies involved may lie when asked the truth.

So to the title of this piece. You’ll know the film, The Lives of Others. Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006 :


It is set during the smouldering taper end of the Eastern Bloc in the mid 1980s. The main character, a spy with the Stasi ( East German Secret Police ) electronically eavesdrops on an author, in case he is an enemy of the state. We see the training classes on how to break someone down. We watch the author’s apartment being bugged. The tale unfolds slowly. The film appears to have been shot in some kind of TechniBrown – shades of drearyness reflecting the pervasive misery, depression and fear of a population forever under suspicion. It is rivetting.

I was in East Germany briefly around the same time. Crossing into East Berlin, like any Western visitor, I was required to purchase some East German Marks, and spend these prior to returning. For the duration of my visit, as I trudged around the jewel in commumism’s crown trying to find a shop with something actually available to buy, I was followed by two gentleman who openly filmed me. There was no hint of threat. Just two bored Stasi agents with cine cameras doing their duty to spy on foreigners.

Eventually, mercifully, I found a shop that in the middle of the empty shelves, had some bottled fruit juice for sale. The bottle was old and dusty. The juice, imported, very expensive. Hence it’s long term shelf occupation. I gladly bought it, and showed it as evidence when I exited through Checkpoint Charlie customs later.

East Germans, of course, had no such easy exit. They’d been trying to get out even while the Wall to keep them in was being built.


On 15 August, 1961, Hans Conrad Schumann, 19, jumped over the Wall throwing away his rifle as he leapt into West Berlin. At that time, the Wall was just 4 days into it’s construction. Photograph, Peter Leibing, also 19.

I left East Berlin with an appreciation for the mess that can be left when a state gets it wrong. That’s not a political comment. The point is, regardless of ideology, the Stasi and other agents of the state were set up to protect their citizens, and they went too far. Far too far. These beaurocracies develop a life of their own, being seemingly accountable to no one. They may well have reached a point where they considered their work a sport, too.

The Stasi were looking for possible “problem” people. They aimed to protect. They operated how they liked, giving themselves authority to bug anyone, because it helped keep their country safe.

Heard that recently ?


I’d like to know more. The Stasi agent in The Lives of Others does learn more, and makes his own judgements. I’m not passing judgement, as I don’t know who is lying, or why. We need my mother’s Truth Ray. A thousand Truth Rays, a million. To not ask for the truth, to blithely accept the contradictory statements from governments and the largest companies on Earth, is to not attempt to make that leap.

Schumann made it. Others, later, didn’t. The Wall had become higher.

Some freedoms and rights are taken for granted by those that have never known, seen, read about or understood the alternatives. Freedom of speech. The right to privacy. For such civilising concepts, wars have been fought, are being fought, and will be fought.

Is it worth throwing it all away, for free email ?

Really ?

*Wagon Wheel: a tasty chocolate-and-fondant snack from the 1970s, circular shaped, wrapped in gold foil.






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