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<nettime> Blogging against Surveillance
Anna on Sat, 22 Nov 2008 21:11:04 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Blogging against Surveillance

Sometime in June of this year I wrote this text which was meant to be
published in a magazine which eventually never got to the printer (but
still might, so they say). I have now published a slightly edited
version in my weblog

Anna (or Anne Roth)

Blogging against surveillance, or: who's the terrorist?

On July 31 of last year, at 7 in the morning armed police stormed into
the apartment where my partner Andrej Holm, I and our two children live.
We learned that day that he was a terrorism suspect and that an
investigation had been going on for almost a year. Andrej was arrested
and flown to Germany's Court of Justice the next day. The search of our
home lasted 15 hours. I was forced to wake my children, dress them and
make them have breakfast with an armed policeman watching us. That day
my new life started, a life as the partner of one of Germany's top
Andrej spent three weeks in investigative detention. The arrest warrant
was signed on grounds that caused a public outcry, not only in Germany
but also in many other countries. Open letters were sent to the court
that were signed by several thousand people protesting against the
arrests. Among the signatures were those of David Harvey, Mike Davis,
Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett and Peter Marcuse.

What had happened?

Some hours before Germany's federal police came to us, three men were
arrested near Berlin, who were said to have tried to set fire to several
army vehicles. The original investigation was started against four other
men, of which Andrej is one, who are suspected to be the authors of
texts by a group called "militante gruppe" (mg, militant group). The
group is known in Germany for damaging property for years, but never
using violence against people. The texts claim responsibility for arson
attacks against cars and buildings in and around Berlin since 2001.
German anti-terror law §129a of the penal code was used to start an
anti-terror-investigation against the four. All of them write and
publish online. Andrej works as a sociologist on issues such as
gentrification and the situation of tenants. Outside academia he is
actively involved in tenants' organizations and movements that deal with
gentrification and urban development. Using words such as
'gentrification', 'marxist-leninist', 'precarisation' oder
'reproduction' in their texts was enough to start complete surveillance
(a linguistic analysis by the Federal Police later showed it's most
unlikely they wrote these texts). As we saw later in the files, the
profile for the 'militant group' was based on several assumptions:
Members of the 'militant group' are assumed to

    * have close ties within the group (all four have been good friends
for years) be political activists (of the left)
    * have no prior police record
    * use 'conspiratorial behaviour', such as encrypting email, using
anonymous mail addresses (not made of proper first and last names)
    * be critical researchers and as such have access to libraries and a
variety of daily papers, a profound political and historical knowledge.

The initial suspicion based on an internet research for similarities in
writing and vocabulary led to different measures of surveillance: phone
tapping, video cameras pointed at living spaces, emails and internet
traffic being monitored, bugging devices in cars, bugging operations on
people's conversations etc. None of these produced valid evidence, so
every two or three months surveillance measures were extended.
Anti-terror-investigations according to §129a of the penal code are
known and infamous for the fact that they are carried out secretly and
only less than 5% ever produce enough evidence to lead to actual court
cases. The vast majority entail lengthy investigations during which huge
amounts of data (mostly on activists) are collected and after years the
case is dropped without anyone ever knowing about it.

Not the 'terrorist' deeds themselves are being prosecuted, but rather
membership or support of the said terrorist organization. Therefore
investigations focus on 'who knows who and why'. For the time being we
know of four such cases carried out against 40 activists in Germany last
year. Participation in protests against the G8 played a prominent, but
not the only role. In all four cases the names of more than 2000 people
were found in the files that were handed over to the defendants: a good
indication of what these investigations are really good for.

In 'our' case most likely all people who had any kind of interaction
with Andrej during 2006/07 were checked by the police. Doing this they
noticed two meetings that allegedly took place in February and April of
2007 with someone who was later included in the investigation as a fifth
suspect, and then two others who were in touch with this 'No. 5'. The
two meetings took place under "highly conspiratorial circumstances": no
mobile phones were taken along, the meeting had been arranged through
so-called anonymous email accounts and during the meeting -- a walk
outside -- the two turned around several times.

The three who were later included in the investigation are the same
three who were arrested after the alleged attempted arson attack. Some
hours later special police forces stormed our home and Andrej became
'the brain behind the militant group'. My identity changed to being 'the
terrorist's partner'.

I was in shock. All of Berlin was on summer break. The few of us who
were not away got together to gather the little we understood about the
accusation. The media rejoiced with headlines such as 'Federal Police
finally succeeded in arresting long searched for terror group' and we
had to deal with media inquiries, talking to lawyers, talking to
relatives, talking to friends, colleagues, neighbors and our children.
We had to find out about life in prison, start a campaign for donations
to pay for lawyers, make a website, agree on how to proceed between a
rather heterogeneous group of suspects and even more heterogeneous
network of friends and supporters and discuss how to deal with the media.

I realized slowly that my children and I were the collateral damage to
this case. My computer was confiscated, things were taken from my desk,
all of my belongings searched. My kids (2 and 5 years old last summer)
lived through two searches carried out by armed police. Their father was
kidnapped and disappeared for weeks.
Being a political activist myself, I am of course aware of the fact that
phones can be tapped and that this is used extensively against
activists. In Germany close to 40.000 phones (including mobiles) are
tapped each year -- we have a total population of 80 million.
(http://www.bundesnetzagentur.de/media/archive/13600.pdf). To realize
and later to read on paper that this concerns you is an entirely
different thing from the somewhat abstract idea that you may be
subjected to it.

When Andrej was released on bail after three weeks, Germany's Federal
Prosecutor filed a complaint and wanted him back in detention right
away, based on the idea that he might flee the country or the danger of
repetition. How do you repeat membership in a terrorist organization?
One of the many mysteries inside the prosecutors mind. The complaint was
not granted right away, but instead Germany's Court of Justice decided
it needed time to reflect thoroughly on the details of the arrest
warrant (which was the origin of the huge wave of solidarity that was
perceived widely in the media), the question of whether the so-called
group actually qualified as 'terrorist' and whether the presented
evidence justified detention.

It was impossible to overlook that Andrej was the focus of police
observation. Our phones went crazy -- not just once did people try to
call Andrejs mobile number but ended up in my phone instead. When I in
turn also tried to call him, I got my own mailbox talking to me. Our TV
behaved oddly (as a result of silent, or stealth pings that were sent to
Andrej's mobile phone regularly to locate him). Emails disappeared.

At some point in the middle of this, I considered starting a weblog
about it. Nobody to my knowledge had ever done a blog about living with
anti-terror surveillance. It was not an easy decision: were people going
to believe me? Would I be portrayed as crazy or paranoid? On the other
hand, unlike many other people, I know for certain that surveillance is
taking place and why not write about what it feels like? Germany had a
major debate about data retention last summer -- the law was just passed
and was to go into effect 2008 (see
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_retention for details). A new
anti-terror federal police law was discussed in parliament and a public
debate about data protection grew to dimensions nobody had thought
possible some months before. The War on Terror serves to justify more
repressive laws here as well. A blog about the consequences of such an
investigation to a family that is admittedly interested (and actively
involved) in politics, but otherwise not exactly your typical terrorist
stereotype opened many eyes.

The idea of blogging had not appealed to me very much before, precisely
because I am quite fond of my privacy. Why present my personal daily
life to a widely anonymous public? Absurd. But now, when my privacy was
already violated beyond anything imaginable, why not talk about what it
feels like to people who are more sympathetic than the Federal
Prosecutor? Why not talk about how ridiculous the 'facts' to prove the
case really are? And there are so many amazingly strange interpretations
in the files of how we live our life, of what Andrej said on the phone,
of what my mother said on the phone, that I thought nobody would believe
these details just a few months later.

I can't think of many situations when it would make sense to publish
details about yourself on a website with the intention to protect your
privacy. In this case it did make sense. We were subjected to a powerful
and (for us) uncontrollable invasion of our life: we had the said video
cameras pointing at the doors of the house we live in, phones tapped,
email and internet traffic monitored, mail read, the stealth pings sent
to Andrejs mobile phone to locate him every hour, undercover agents
following him around and who knows what else. It's likely that this is
going on until now. Surveillance by police and secret services done in a
very obvious way for you to notice is (also) meant to scare you, maybe
to provoke reactions. Is also meant to scare others who just might have
the same inclination to want to make the world a better place. Fear
works best when your alone with it. Publishing details about how this
fear is incited is not only a good way to open eyes about how the 'War
on Terror' looks like from the receiving end but is also a great method
to stay sane and get it of (some of) the fear.

And so I started blogging. Mostly in German, basically because I don't
find the time to translate more and maybe also because I thought that
there would be more German readers interested - it is a minor case of
terrorism, if you want, and hardly known outside Germany. You can find
some texts in English here: http://annalist.noblogs.org/category/en.

I wasn't familiar with the world of blogs, and probably still am not
very much. I didn't have time to find out how to 'make your blog
popular' and was not particularly interested in that. I wasn't really
sure how much attention I'd like, and so I started by publishing in the
blog the same things I had previously sent by email to people interested
in the development of the case and in how we personally were doing. And
I only told people I knew about it. It took about three weeks until some
of the more popular political German blogs picked it up, wrote about us
and the number of visits exploded. In the beginning people wondered
whether this, whether I 'was real'. The blog got lots of comments and it
was obvious that many people were completely shocked about what was
going on. They compared the investigation to what they imagined having
taken place in the Soviet Union, in China, North Korea, East German, but
not 'here', in a Western democracy, a constitutional state. Another
group consists of people who want to help us secure our privacy by
explaining about email encryption, switching SIM cards in mobile phone
and the like, not realizing that at least in the first months we
actively avoided anything that could only appear as though we wanted to
behave in a conspiratorial way, as this was one of the reasons Andrej
became a suspect to begin with.

I thought it was pretty funny that being 'the sociologist's wife' (we
are not married), people seemed to assume that Linux or encryption is
something I'd never heard of. Many people expressed fear that already by
reading my blog or even commenting on it they might endanger themselves.
I was glad they did anyway. Others expressed admiration for us to have
chosen to be so public about the case. All of this was great and very
important support that made it much easier to deal with the ongoing
stress and tension that come with the threat of being tried as a terrorist.

Fortunately Germany's Court of Justice took several decisions that were
very favorable for Andrej. In a first, two months after the prosecutor's
objection to his release on bail, the court decided not only to not
allow the objection, but instead completely withdrew the arrest warrant,
arguing that 'pure assumptions are not sufficient'. This decision was
perceived as a 'slap in the face' of Germany's Federal Prosecutor by
many journalists. One months later the same court had to decide whether
the 'militant group' can be considered a 'terrorist organization' and
decided against this. The German definition for terrorism demands that a
terrorist act is meant and able to shake the state to its very
foundations, or else to terrify the population as such. When Germany's
minister of justice, Brigitte Zypries, was asked in an interview with
Der Spiegel, one of the biggest political weekly magazines, about the
case against the alleged members of the 'militant group', she said that
she thought that the attacks of September 11 are a terrible tragedy, but
in her definition not a terrorist act as it didn't manage to endanger
the American state. We were rather surprised by this, to say the least.
In November the Court of Justice decided that the 'militant group' can't
be considered to be terrorist and ordered the other three arrested to be
released on bail. At this point, the investigation is being conducted on
the basis of §129 (instead of §129a), which prosecutes criminal instead
of terrorist organizations, with possible sentences of up to five
instead of ten years.

When Andrej was arrested for 'being terrorist', on the grounds of being
intelligent, knowing many people from different spheres of society,
accessing libraries and publishing texts, being an activist, behaving in
what is seen as a conspiratorial way (not always taking the mobile phone
along or using encryption) it felt that if this is possible, then it is
thinkable that they'd even sentence him to a prison term. With months of
public support and more details of the investigation becoming public,
like many others, I started believing that this nightmare is terminal,
that the case would have to be dropped eventually. Most people don't
realize that the investigation is actually still going on. All of our
phone calls are still being listened to, our emails read, Andrej's every
step is being watched. Germany discusses online searches of computers
and using hidden cameras in people's living spaces to detect terrorists,
and we know that the secret service is using what the police only dream
of. It has been an extremely straining life for a year and a half now,
but I am convinced that a good way to survive something like this, which
terrorized us, our children, families and friends, is to not go into
hiding. I understand the feeling very well of wanting to not move
anymore until it's all over, to not provoke any (legal) action when
you're in the focus of this kind of attention. To do the contrary - seek
as much public attention and thus support as possible - was the best
thing we could do.


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