Blogging Under Surveillance

What: 

Activist, Anne Roth, tells her story about what it was like to live with a partner who was targeted under German anti-terrorism surveillance law. Anne decided to blog about her spying experience to protect her family’s privacy.

Who: 
Anne Roth was a squatter in East-Berlin in the early 90s, co-founded Indymedia in Germany in 2001, and recently founded a database for female experts and speakers for conferences.  For the past two years, she has worked on the Tactical Tech project, “Me and My Shadow” and is working as a researcher for the German parliamentary inquiry on the NSA and other secret services.
Where: 

Berlin, Germany

The Surveillance Practice: 

Early on July 31, 2007, the German federal police arrived at the residence of journalist and net activist, Anne Roth and her partner, Andrej Holm. Andrej Holm is an urban sociologist working on issues of gentrification and urban development. As the armed police entered their home, they aggressively arrested Andrej and raided their home for 15 long hours.  Rightfully confused, Anne called a lawyer and was later informed that her partner was a terrorism suspect.
 
Andrej spent three weeks in pre-trial detention. Anne soon discovered that the investigation of Andrej had been in progress for a year, meaning they had been under surveillance since the summer of 2006. The federal police were investigating a group accused of terrorism who were committing arson attacks against different institutions, such as the military.  The group had published long statements claiming responsibility for the arson attacks. By running a linguistic comparison, the police believed that Andrej could have been the author of these long statements because Andrej uses words such as “gentrification,” “marxist-leninist,” and “precarisation” in his own sociology publications. Andrej’s words profiled him as terrorism suspect, which led the police to accuse him of being part of a terrorist organization.

The police may have used a variety of surveillance tactics at their disposal in investigating Andrej as a German terrorism suspect.  The tactics may have included secret observations of Andrej’s movements, phone tapping, and internet monitoring.  Although Anne and Andrej cannot confirm this happened to them, the police contacted the banks and landlords of other suspects in the case.

Andrej was released just three weeks after his arrest, but the investigation and surveillance continued for three years while the police looked for something—anything—that would incriminate Andrej.  The couple remains unsure as to how long their phones had been monitored—in fact Anne believes to this day they could still be targets.
 
At this same time (2007), Germany was passing an anti-terrorism law seeking to expand laws enabling police to use cameras inside apartments to monitor people.  During this period of time, the European Data Retention Directive was just being implemented. And while the potential effect of high-tech surveillance was being earnestly discussed in the media, Andrej and Anne were actually living it.

The Campaign: 

Anne was in the unique position of not being a suspect herself, but being subject to surveillance. The situation was traumatic for the family. Being an activist herself, Anne’s impulse for reporting and reacting to the situation was natural for her.  However, understanding the consequences and risks associated with going public, and especially given her responsibility for their two children, it took about two months until she had the energy—and nerve—to take action.

Just two months prior, the couple had been actively involved in organizing media activism that documented the protests at the G8 summit.  They already had a wide network of people who had the ability to garner media attention.  Although Anne was an activist, she feared that if she started attacking the police’s surveillance tactics, people might assume she was crazy or paranoid.  And once she did it, there would be no going back. However, their large circle of supporters encouraged her to blog about her experience, saying it would support other surveillance victims who might not have her same means or media access.

The Strategy: 

In 2007, when blogging wasn’t very common, she wrote one story (that was more like an update on their situation for inquiring minds) and shared it with a few like-minded people. Anne continued to write for a couple of weeks when then, a post about her situation was written on a very well known blog called “Fefes Blog.” After that, things just exploded.  She continued to write as her family was subjected to surveillance, and noted all the things that were happening as a result of it—their television acting up, Andrej’s phone number being forwarded to hers, the feeling of having to self-censor phone conversations for fear she may say something wrong. The feedback and attention her posts garnered were resoundingly positive.  Anne logged all of the details, which helped her with the legal, personal, and technical aspects of the case. The support from total strangers helped justify her paranoia.  She found it easier to talk about her situation and received feedback from people who assured her she wasn’t crazy and told her it was okay to be afraid.  Anne’s blogging, and her mass of supporters, aided the cause by organizing professional media attention and letter writing.
 
In July 2010, the charges were ultimately dropped. No other terrorism suspect had ever gotten out of pre-trial detention before any law case started, but Anne believes that the public attention to the case made all the difference.  Anne and Andrej made it clear to the public that they were normal human beings who didn’t deserve this, and this spotlight brought German surveillance practices under public scrutiny.

Lessons Learned: 
  • A support network is crucial to fighting surveillance.
  • Be public and blog about your surveillance experience in order to garner support.
Resources: 

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