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Totalitarian threat looms

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Totalitarian regimes teach us important lessons about the consequences of letting nosy state authorities use surveillance to keep their people in check, delegates were told at the Data Protection and Privacy Commissioner's conference in London yesterday.

Stalinist Russia and the former German Democratic Republic, which suffered a stifling life under the surveillance of the Stasi secret police, were drawn on for examples to ignite the imaginations of people who remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, but might not be vigilant enough to spot where the surveillance state might be heading.

"What happened to those countries could happen here," warned Dr Benjamin Goold, lecturer in law and criminology at the University of Oxford, noting how totalitarianism has a habit of creeping up on people.

"We may end up with many of the negative effects if we continue down the path that pervasive surveillance seems to be on," he said.

Democratic, constitutional states are no guarantee against totalitarian power, said Hans Altendorf, director of the Federal Office for the Records of the National Security Services of the former German Democratic Republic.

People have to be vigilant against the state, he said: "I hope the experience of the surveillance states will not be without significance for the present. We must call on the bitter lessons of the past."

Their stories tell us what it's like to live in a state where there is no privacy, delegates were told.

Peter Schaar, Germany's data protection commissioner, reminded the audience that after the Berlin Wall came down people discovered that their spouses, parents and friends had been spying on them on behalf of the state.

"We can only speculate how regimes in the past could have been, had they had the technology that's available to us today," said Richard Thomas, the UK's Information Commissioner.

Goold said that in the GDR, people didn't feel able to trust the state because the state didn't trust people, while people where also taught not to trust one another.

"The pervasive use of surveillance undermines or destroys the inter-related trust relationships that are fundamental to the operation of the state," he said.

There might be many laudable ideas behind surveillance, like fighting crime, he said. "But there's an important tipping point where the number of people under surveillance is greater than those who are not."

"When the state moves from trying to govern to trying to control, that's one of the trademarks of the surveillance state," he added.

Providing further detail of how totalitarian regimes work, Goold described how the database state is starting to operate today.

Information stored in databases creates a data double, which is used as a proxy for a person's identity. But there is a dissonance, he said, between a person's idea of who they are, and the identity ascribed to them by their data double.

So Amazon might suggest to your data double that it buy a particular book. But you might notice that it was on a subject you where interested in 10 years ago. So what if it didn't realise you were more interested nowadays in building Robot Wars combatants than disarming house alarms?

But what happens when this data double controls the way you can interact with the state, and much else besides.

"There's a danger the state develops an ID that exists separate to the individual that trumps the individual's idea of themselves," said Goold.

This distinction was a characteristic of totalitarian states, he said and likewise, "The marshalling of trivial details to create a picture of me that I don't endorse."®

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