“Welcome to the United States.”
I may never hear these words again. Not because I am going deaf or because I can’t afford to go. No, my ears are quite fine and with a little budgeting I can probably visit the US pretty soon.
But I may not want to go to and here’s why.
The American government is considering new security measures for people visiting the US. Visitors may be asked to hand in their mobile phones for security checks, give up passwords to their social media accounts, and even present their financial records, which may result in possible intrusions and abuse of personal privacy.
Very similar ‘security measures’ were enforced on the borders of countries behind the Iron Curtain between the end of Second World War (WWII) in 1945 and end of the Cold War in 1991. Although people managed to get permissions to travel abroad, usually to allied communist countries only, their possessions were ransacked and their cars were literally turned upside down.
Some people may think that comparing the current US to the Iron Curtain is overreacting but I can assure you this is certainly not the case. Coming from the Czech Republic, a country which was ruled by a totalitarian communist government for over four decades, I have family members who were significantly affected by the surveillance carried out by the state and these so-called ‘security measures’.
This was how my grandmother, who lived under the communist regime for 45 years, would describe her encounter with the police: “It was necessary to be inventive, because they searched everything at the border. We would hide foreign money we could buy only from the black market in an old medicine tube and plug it into a jar with jam.”
If you think this story is funny rather than horrific, don’t be fooled. The border police needed to make sure that they weren’t letting anyone migrate or taking out discrediting information about the regime. Finding anything suspicious could often lead to a travel ban, harming your children’s chances of getting into university, getting on the watch-list of the political police forces, interrogation, being forced to work in a labour camp, or even imprisonment.
No one could express their opinions of disapproval with the regime because of the omnipresent surveillance.
So don’t tell me I am overreacting when I see a democratic country considering the implementation of procedures that will make me undergo the same violation of privacy as my grandmother went through under the communist government.
Over the past few years, we have seen a number of incidences involving the violation of privacy for the government’s use of digital surveillance. There was Edward Snowden, ECHELON (i.e., Five Eyes), and NSA warrantless surveillance after 9/11. All of which had sparked a considerable outrage which I felt was not enough.
While I was born in a democratic and free country, the generations before me lived in the Eastern Europe times when privacy practically did not exist because citizens were monitored by the state and the party.
After the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, my great-grandparents’ house, which had been my family’s possession for decades, was confiscated and they were moved to a small one-bedroom flat. They were interrogated after my grandaunt’s immigration to the United Kingdom. No one could express their opinions of disapproval with the regime because of the omnipresent surveillance. So I feel like it is my duty to say something when the practices of today’s democratic political systems begin to resemble those of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the past.
In 2016, the Czech Republic government successively introduced the Electronic Revenue Registry (i.e., elektronická evidence tržeb or EET in short) whereby all cash sales of goods and services have to be electronically recorded. This means that every time when a payment is being made, the receipt detailing it will be send to the central data repository of the Financial Administration, so that a unique code is issued to document the transaction. The EET is compulsory for everyone who is liable to be taxed in the country.
After the law leading to EET was passed, it sparked a serious outrage among the media and public. The EET was allegedly introduced to fight tax evasion, create space for better control of the grey market, and discourage businessmen from not disclosing all incomes on tax returns.
However, to the general public, it is much more than that.
The EET requires most businesses to register all payments to a central electronic database and sales coming from monetary, to de facto represent money like tokens and vouchers will be recorded. There is also a backup offline system to be used in the case of no internet connection. This means that whoever is armed with the issued unique code will be able to tracked down the registered receipt of purchase, indirectly revealing the time and venue I which the purchase was made and all the other related information.
Moreover, the Financial Administration had created a special website with two sections, one for the businesses affected by the law and one for the public. The former contains guidelines for administrative functions and the latter serves as a tool for reporting and denouncement.
Anyone who receives a receipt from a shop or a pub can now check whether it is registered to the database. People can also report any businesses that do not print out a receipt for them. All these can be done anonymously and about 760 of such “reports” had been made on the first week and over 2000 the month after the EET had been implemented.
When I first read about the launching of EET, I was really alarmed because I immediately recognised this kind of behaviour and we are not even talking about George Orwell’s 1984 here.
Instead, it was very close, if not the same, to what had happened in Czechoslovakia under the communist regime. People used to snoop on their neighbours and report any “subversive” or suspicious anti-state behaviour to the State Security – a political police force controlled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
When the EET website was launched, Czech media and the public had an immediate negative reaction. It was labelled the ‘denunciation web’ and the critical responses forced the Financial Administration to take its reporting function down. However, public are still able to check whether their purchase have been registered so what’s there to stop them from giving another anonymous tip to the Administration, which can send inspections and slap businesses with a fine?
So there you have it, although the EET is actually harming smaller businesses and forcing some of them to close down and the results may not even bring any significant changes to the budget or tax, the government stands firm on their decision. Even when it negatively affects the behaviour of society and brings back the horrors of what it was like to live in the communist era in Czechoslovakia.
Similar tendencies appear all over the world in the name of modernisation and digitalisation. More and more online databases are created and justified as helpful tools that make everyday tasks easier and help strengthen security.
Take for instance Poland, neighbour of the Czech Republic. Under the new Act on anti-terrorist activities which was passed in June and came into force on July 2, 2016, all prepaid SIM cards have to be registered. Anyone with a prepaid card that was purchased before July 25, 2016 had the opportunity to register prior to February 1, 2017, when all unregistered cards would be disabled. So anyone who wishes to buy a prepaid SIM card in Poland today will have to register with their name and surname, personal identification number, and a document confirming their identity. Phone operators do not have the right to sell any prepaid SIM cards unless they can check and confirm the identity of their buyers.
We would hide foreign money we could buy only from the black market in an old medicine tube
I spoke to a friend of mine, Ernest, 22, who is a Polish Fine Art student living in London to find out his native country’s reactions to this new law.
“It gets a lot of criticism. There is a widely used joke by the older generation which goes like ‘conversation is controlled’, which is something you heard when you used a public phone to call others back under the Soviet government.”
The tapping of phone lines was commonly used behind the Iron Curtain for identifying and spying on the political opposition.
While some of these new laws and security measures might seem justifiable in the name of security, they very much resemble practices of totalitarian governments. What strikes me is how little young people coming from countries that never experienced oppressive regimes know about this.
When I moved to the UK to study, I was very surprised to see my peers didn’t know much about the life behind the Iron Curtain. When I asked around, majority of my friends confirmed that in schools they learnt more about Nazism but very little about the brutalities and abuse of the Communist regime, which had affected people in Eastern Europe for more than 40 years.
Could this be one of the reasons to why citizens in western democratic countries don’t really question decisions of their governments to gather and store increasingly more and more information about themselves? Maybe. I don’t know if teachers tell their students that even though 1984 was written as fiction, a big fraction of Orwell’s predictions actually happened in real life too. Something we should never stop reminding ourselves of.
When communist regimes were established in Eastern Europe after WWII, one of their first priorities was identifying, monitoring, and even destroying political opposition with the help of newly created security forces. This is evident from their dates of establishment.
In Eastern Germany it was Stasi, formed in 1950; in Czechoslovakia it was the State Security, created in 1945; the General Directorate of the Security of the People (DGSP) in Romania, operating founded in 1948, and the State Security Service in Yugoslavia, formed in 1946. The list goes on. There were some form of a political police or force functioned in every country in the Eastern Bloc.
These political police started within five years of the end of WWII and their activities were not terminated until the fall of communism in the Bloc and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These forces were the ones who gathered information not just about the political opposition but also about civilians who performed various “suspicious anti-state activities”. These were the groups that gathered intel and affected personal lives of hundreds of thousands civilians like my grandparents.
If you’re wondering what does it mean by “suspicious anti-state activities”, there are basically excuses for which a person could be monitored. For instance, distribution of banned materials, be it literature, music, films or art, which were labelled as imperialistic or bourgeois by the party and thus deemed inappropriate; being part of an unofficial club or an association; a high-ranking member of a religious community; listening to the Voice of America; not voting, which was mandatory in Czechoslovakia and an individual’s absence was considered to be an act of dissent, or like my grandmother, having a relative living overseas. It was anything and everything that posed a threat to the regime.
While these new laws and security measures seem justifiable, they resemble practices of totalitarian governments
“You could feel the presence of the regime all the time, you could not publicly say out your thought because someone might denounce you, and you would probably be prosecuted for ‘defamation of the state and its representatives’. I don’t remember any specific case of snooping from my neighbours but at work you knew who the snitch was or if there was a State Security informer, so you have to be careful”, my grandmother says.
“Every two years at work, we had to fill out a detailed questionnaire about our personal lives, family members, traveling record, contacts abroad etc. Anyone who has overseas family member would be at a disadvantage and couldn’t get a promotion,” she adds.
In the Eastern Bloc, human rights were violated each and every day and much of these actions were carried out by the state security groups with the help of surveillance techniques. Some of the most common ones included the tapping of phone lines mentioned earlier which mimics the new law regarding prepaid SIM cards purchase in Poland. Apart from that, the state securities would also install microphones and recording devices into peoples’ homes, which was commonly referred to as ‘walls have ears’.
Letters were habitually opened, read, and then resealed. Members of the secret political forces could also carry out house searches, sometimes even without the presence of the owners. If the targets of this surveillance had committed an offence against the state or the party, they would be interrogated, persecuted, imprisoned or in the worst cases tortured and murdered.
Jan Charvat, assistant professor of the Institute of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Prague expressed that basically, the problem of state control is as old as the state itself. Countries always want to control their citizens, but they differ essentially in the range of control, in options for citizens to ‘control the controllers’ and in the degree of willingness to push the boundaries of what is legal and what is not.
“In states with a communist (or generally any other authoritarian or totalitarian) government experience, state control is usually accepted with less real resistance because of the lack of rooted civic structures that would be able to face and fight such pressure.
“Moreover, if you argue for citizens’ safety, there is usually a significantly lower willingness to resist. Nobody wants to worsen the security situation, which the states (regardless of whether democratic or authoritarian) are well aware of. Generally speaking, I believe that society should resist similar efforts as much as possible because mass data collection always creates space for abuse of personal data.”
Indeed, it may be hard for Eastern Europeans to fight against their governments’ use of digital surveillance due to no strong civic associations, but it is something one has to be prepared in near future.
In fact, the things people like my grandmother were forced to do in the past, the need to fill out mandatory questionnaires with details about their personal lives, we are still doing them on a daily basis now without even questioning it or being aware of it. We share so much of our personal lives and information online and allow us to be monitored by surveillance cameras all the time.
However, my family’s history had taught me that as governments are more likely to digitise and store personal data, we should also be increasingly critical of such implementations. This is because nobody can guarantee bullet-proof encrypting and storing of digital information and thus preventing their abuse. Neither can anyone say that democracy will be here forever and extremists will not get hold onto our personal data and other information.
Today people are willing to distribute their personal data and information about their activities in exchange for comfort. Yes, technology can undeniably make our lives easier. But it also makes us comfortable. In fact, so comfortable, that we don’t mind giving up our right for privacy, which so many of us, including my grandmother, have only dreamed of for decades.
Featured Image by Jonathan McIntosh.