After NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked millions of secrets that blew the lid off American spying activities, Germany’s most famous news magazine Der Spiegel defended him, blazoning “Asyl Für Snowden” (Asylum for Snowden) on its front page. Since then, Snowden has found a home in Moscow. But many hoped the German capital of Berlin had provided the North Carolinan safe harbor.
It’s no surprise that Berlin, Germany’s ‘poor but sexy’ capital city of 3.4 million people, reserves such acrimony for abuses of online privacy. Before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 the eastern half of the city, then the capital of the German Democratic Republic (Deutsches Demokratisches Republik; DDR), was the center of a surveillance state the likes of which had never been seen. At one point its Ministry for State Security –– the infamous Stasi — had 173,000 informants in a country of 18 million. Hitler’s Gestapo had 45,000 members at its peak.
The backlash against government spying has been huge in Berlin, whose technology industry has since flourished. There are now over 2,500 startups in what has become known as ‘Silicon Allee’, and last November Europe’s data protection officials chose to host their once-a-decade meeting in Berlin.
Alexander Dix is Berlin’s data protection commissioner. It’s his task to hold public and private entities responsible for invasions of privacy through technology. And he’s doing an excellent job: in 2009 Dix’s office investigated the Berlin Transport Services (BVG) for spying on its workforce — the city’s largest — and BVG was forced into a €1.1 million ($1.5 million) payout.
Dix is proud that Berlin is standing up for data protection, and that journalists such as Americans Jacob Applebaum and Laura Poitras have made the city their home. “It was here that in 1989 the headquarters of the Stasi [were] taken over by a civil rights movement in East Germany. And most of them were the victims of surveillance.
Dix says he isn’t surprised the NSA was spying on its allies. “But the extent is shocking, and what we are doing is getting a debate going about what are the consequences,” he says. Dix has led information campaigns to counteract invasions of privacy. And despite political inertia across Europe, Dix is happy that Berlin is leading the charge against data protection infringements, which are becoming so commonplace that they are barely reported worldwide. But he admits more needs to be done, should the work he does gain greater exposure on a governmental level.
“We need a unified plan. There’s a great deal of discussion in civil society, more than in the U.S. But politics is dragging its feet. That’s a problem.” Der Spiegel managed to get 30 officials to speak out for its controversial lead story in November. With Dix’s help that number is set to rise.