~ Laura Poitras
In the summer of 2013, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked an unprecedented amount of classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. After the first publications of the documents they, together with technologist Jacob Appelbaum and WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, stood by Snowden’s side. Soon after, these four individuals became part of a larger group of privacy activists: the privacy movement. Due to the diverse background of its members and its unusual leadership-structure, this group of activists is decentralized and distributed, and therefore complicated to define as a whole. There is, however, one thing that binds the activists: they meet in Berlin.
The German capital is a significant place for the privacy movement. It is a safe haven for Appelbaum and Harrison, and a place where Poitras could work on her film CITIZENFOUR relatively undisturbed. Berlin is also a vibrant city with a lively digital culture and rich history, which creates a favorable atmosphere for privacy activists to gather. But why do activists still need physical places to meet in a time in which it seems the rise of the Internet has made real-life contact redundant? And why does Berlin prove to be this place for the privacy movement?
Physical Meeting Places in a Digital Age
Even though it is tempting to assume that real life contact has become redundant for a social movement that is in essence so intertwined with technology and the Internet, real life contact still remains necessary. The presence of real social linkages influences movements in two ways. First, when individuals know each other in real life and have the opportunity to regularly meet, like the privacy movement has in Berlin, it helps to shape a collective identity within a movement. In their paper “Scenes and Social Movements”, sociologists Haunss and Leach observe that the space in which new social movements act is situated between “the public and private spheres” and that it is “political, but non-institutional”. This is where movement scenes come into being. Movement scenes are not the same as social movements, subcultures, or countercultures, but are rather situated at a crossroads where the three influence each other. Haunss and Leach claim that movement scenes are a crucial factor in developing a collective identity within a movement, because within a scene links between lifestyles and collective action can be formed. In addition to a network of people who share certain values and ideas, having certain locations where members can meet and share experiences is a significant contributor to maintaining a collective identity. Locations allow scene members to physically experience their membership in, for example, bars, clubs, parks, street corners, and parts of town. Knowing what these locations are can in itself be a sign of membership .
It is much easier to perform surveillance in the online world than in the offline world
Another reason why real-life contact is important for social movements is specifically tied to the privacy movement. In a personal interview, Appelbaum stresses that the physical and the digital are not separated and that it is still necessary to have “reflection points for action”. He also mentions another advantage the physical has over the virtual: conducting surveillance is more difficult and less common in the physical world . Privacy activists are generally deeply concerned with issues of surveillance and privacy, and are extremely aware of governments’ capabilities to intercept communication. Moreover, many activists have valid reasons to assume they have drawn the specific attention of intelligence agencies. It is much easier to perform surveillance in the online world than in the offline world, and that hampers activists in their free online communication. Therefore, a physical place to meet is extra valuable for the privacy movement.
The Privacy Movement in Berlin
We now know why physical places to meet are important for social movements – even for the ones heavily intertwined with the Internet – but why is Berlin that place for the privacy movement? The reason is twofold; Berlin’s recent history still influences Germans’ attitude towards privacy and surveillance, and the city has an exceptionally vibrant digital culture.
The surveillance apparatus of the German Democratic Republic was in essence quite similar to the way in which modern intelligence agencies store their data nowadays.
Berlin’s History of Surveillance
Germany, and Berlin in particular, has quite a unique and turbulent history that still influences citizens’ attitude towards privacy and surveillance today. World War II left Germany divided and in 1949, Germany was definitively split up into countries: the German Federal Republic in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Life in the German Democratic Republic was not very pleasant, and what made it particularly difficult was the surveillance apparatus the then ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany, had in place. Between 1950 and 1989 the Stasi, the Germany Democratic Republic’s official state security service, had built a full-fledged intelligence network. By 1989 it had grown into an organization with 93,000 full-time employees. The Stasi did not only have official employees; it also had a large network of informants who were forced to personally report on friends, neighbors, and colleagues. In addition, surveillance was for example conducted through infiltration, by disguising as a tourist or tapping telephone conversations, and through controlling the mail system. All gathered information was stored in special card indexes – in essence quite similar to the way in which modern intelligence agencies store their data nowadays .
Surveillance is still a sensitive subject for German citizens
Keeping the history of the Stasi’s surveillance activities in mind, the current surveillance of intelligence services evokes strong emotions in a city like Berlin; Germans have not forgotten what total surveillance feels like. Not long after the disclosure of the Snowden documents, German author and journalist Jan Fleischhauwer explained in Der Spiegel that surveillance is still a much more sensitive subject for German citizens than for, for example, United States citizens. While Americans in general have no problem with giving up privacy in return for security, Germans “are more than happy to consign their children to state care […] but would go through hell and high water to keep their personal information out of state hands” .
Reading the Streets of Berlin
Berlin has an incredible culture of resistance. I have been coming to Berlin for many years because of the Chaos Computer Club, and I’ve worked with Der Spiegel in the context of WikiLeaks. I have a lot of close friends here in the art world and in the computer hacker world and in the journalistic world. […] We often joke that it’s this sort of last stand for democracy. Where people are really having real dialogues. 
~ Jacob Appelbaum
This quotation captures the second reason why Berlin is important for the privacy movement: its lively digital culture. In Berlin, many organizations and initiatives concerned with digital themes can be found. One of the most influential organizations in the city is the largest hackers association of Europe: the Chaos Computer Club. The CCC has its clubhouse, Club Discordia, in Berlin. It also organizes many events, such as the annual Chaos Communication Congress and the four-yearly Chaos Communication Camp, that also draw (h)activists from abroad to the city. American researcher and new Berliner Leif Ryge confirms this; he explains he first came to Berlin for the CCC and later on decided to stay. In addition, Berlin has many spaces, both large and small, where hackers and digital activists gather. One of the larger spaces is c-base, founded in 1995 and designed to resemble a “crashed space station in the center of Berlin”. C-base often organizes workshops, seminars, exhibits, presentations, and parties through which it tries to create new ideas and enhance communication between different groups. The existence of these initiatives has also brought about new initiatives and organizations. One of these initiatives is, for example, the CryptoParty. The CryptoParty is a global initiative in which technologists discuss and teach privacy enhancing tools to those who have a more limited technical expertise. Berlin belongs to the cities in which these parties are held most often: there are usually multiple parties held each week. A new organization that has its roots in Berlin is, for example, The Courage Foundation. Founded by WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, this foundation works to support the protection of whistleblowers.
A city like Berlin, with its privacy-conscious climate and many events and organizations, attracts activists.
Together, these initiatives have created a vibrant digital culture that is apparent throughout the entire city. As the following quotation of Haunss and Leach suggests, the streets of Berlin are also filled with political messages.
If you want to know what’s really going on, you don’t read the newspapers, you read the streets. Literally. Someone who arrives in Berlin for the first time, even if they don’t know a single person, can find entry into the political scene simply by reading the posters and graffiti that cover the walls, overpasses, and telephone poles all over town. Posters especially convey all kinds of political information, announcing protest actions, meetings, informational events, the formation of new groups, and social events like street festivals, parties, and concerts.
The presence of a strong digital culture in Berlin has lead to the presence of a large group of activists that has a shared culture and maintains close social contact; they do not only meet at political events, but also at social events . These social events are an opportunity to quickly exchange information about, for example “political campaigns and first-hand accounts of protest actions”. With this, politics and culture become entangled and that creates a fertile situation for both the movement and the locations where those events take place. When activists visit social events they will likely come into contact with people who do not belong to the core of their movement in a relaxed and informal way, which allows a relationship to develop naturally. The positive feelings that the contact evokes are then linked to both the location and the movement.
Despite the opportunities the Internet has to offer, physical places where activists can have real-life contact remain of significant importance for social movements in general and the privacy movement in particular. A city like Berlin, with its privacy-conscious climate and many events and organizations, attracts activists. But the presence of these activists also attracts new activists and helps to establish new organizations and initiatives; what the digital culture brings forth is at the same time what creates the digital culture. The combination of these factors is what makes Berlin the perfect meeting place for the privacy movement.
Editor: Eva Nivard
Loes completed her research on this subject in 2015. Any changes that have occurred within the movement since the allegations of abuse against Appelbaum in 2016 were not taken into account.