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Surveillance in the Age of Wikileaks

(Posted September 16, 2013)

Christian Eichenmuller. Photo by Kelly Russo '14

Christian Eichenmuller is research assistant for James Skelly, director of the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. He was born in German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany in 1984, where surveillance was an inevitable part of society. Christian's father was a member of the Stasi, (Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit) the notorious surveillance institution in the GDR. For reasons of conscience, his father left the institution, a forbidden action, and served 10 months in prison before he was released and allowed to move to West Germany. Recently, Christian was granted access to the files that the GDR kept on his father, which include documentation of Christian's childhood. It was this discovery that motivated Christian to delve further into the history of surveillance and its implications in our present world.

Q: How has your family history influenced your interest in surveillance?

A: My father requested his files. Not all of the information is there, but the data nevertheless gives a very comprehensive picture of the extent of the surveillance. This includes work and social life and extends deeply into the private sphere. The GDR were primarily interested in whom my father was talking to and the topics of these conversations. This is one of the parallels, if one wants to draw them, to today, where it has become possible to acquire this data through technology. In the past, investigators had to work and snoop to acquire information, making it more difficult to monitor people. Today, we are all complicit. We use media and communication in almost unreflective ways, which makes it easier for authorities to find out who we are talking to. I'm interested in understanding the extent of surveillance and how it worked in the past. Sometimes to understand the present, one needs a comprehensive understanding of the past.

Q: How is surveillance affecting the average Juniata student? Should we be concerned?

A: First of all, the question that has to be posed is whether one cares or not. One must understand the implications of this issue. For example, it is helpful to understand which kind of data is used for what purposes. Only if one has full knowledge of what's being recorded and who is using this data, can one adequately address if one cares or doesn't care about it. I think people should be concerned because they are ultimately affected in various ways by the data that is being collected about them. This will increasingly be the case not only with security but also consumerism. It is also a question of how democracy and democratic society should be run and will run in the future. If we think that society should still work on the basis of equality, we should be concerned about surveillance. The collected data allows those in power to categorize people and essentially make them unequal in light of certain interests.

Q: What do you think about Edward Snowden's actions?
A: My personal opinion is that he made clear that he didn't want to live in the kind of society that he believed was developing. In that respect, it's an admirable thing to act on the basis of these convictions.

--Hannah Jeffery '16, Juniata Online Journalist

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