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The art of surveillance: the Stasi archives and the Investigatory Powers Act

A photographic exhibition captures the chilling impact of surveillance in the UK and the former German Democratic Republic

In June 2016, just before the UK’s EU referendum, I started watching the remaining stages of the Investigatory Powers Act as it passed through Parliament.

I had set myself this task as part of my doctoral study considering the ethics and politics of surveillance. For eight months, I travelled from Sheffield to London every few weeks and, for several days, I sat in the public galleries of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

It was a particularly charged time to be in Parliament and I remember the shock and anxiety when David Cameron delivered his resignation speech to the House of Lords following the unexpected result of the EU referendum, interrupting the passage of Investigatory Powers Bill.

One of the political rationales behind the extension of the government’s digital surveillance capabilities through the Investigatory Powers Act was the need for security agencies to keep up to date with developments in technology.

Yet I had visited the Stasi museum in Berlin in 2014 and had seen some of the cameras and devices that they had used to support the dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).They were hardly high-tech.

The GDR used this most basic surveillance technology to support a brutal and oppressive dictatorship rather than protecting the civilians from harm.

We only have to look to the Stasi Records Agency in Berlin to realise that surveillance itself is a greater threat to civil liberties and human rights than the ill-defined rationale of national security that supports its implementation.

We only have to look to the Stasi Records Agency in Berlin to realise that surveillance itself is a greater threat to civil liberties and human rights than the ill-defined rationale of national security that supports its implementation.

The threat of surveillance relies on the authorisation of its use, access to the data and analysis of that data, rather than the technologies that enable it.

As a way to explore the authorisations surrounding surveillance and to develop work as a photographic artist, I decided that I would covertly take pictures in the Houses of Parliament. I uses  a Minox Cold War spy camera as Parliament implemented the most far-reaching blanket surveillance of any Western democracy. These are a selection of the photographs that I took while the government debated the bill.

Pictures: Minox Part 2: The Houses of Parliament, London (2016)

I took photographs in the toilets in the Houses of Parliament while I learned how to use the camera and then ventured into Westminster Palace and the viewing galleries.

I looked at photographs from hidden cameras at the Stasi Records Agency. I wanted to see the type of images a buttonhole or briefcase camera would produce, rather than the subjects of the surveillance.

I asked for footage that had failed, missed its subject, was damaged or had been sabotaged as Stasi agents tried to destroy material when they fled the building following the Peaceful Revolution of 1989.

These are some of the images I looked at.

Pictures: Opening ceremony of the Ernst-Thälmann-Park residential estate attended by Mikhail Gorbachev during his 1986 state visit, Berlin (2019)

These photographs were taken on a briefcase camera during Mikhail Gorbachev’s state visit to the former GDR in 1986. They had been cut into pieces by Stasi agents along with huge amounts of paper files, films and other data they had collected on civilians of the GDR.

When citizens saw that material was being burned, they took over the offices and sent the workers of the Ministry for State Security home. The Stasi Records Agency painstakingly pieced together and restored damaged and shredded files to enable a reappraisal of the former dictatorship.

As I was carrying out my research at the Stasi Records Agenc, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was unfolding – a contemporary version of the power of data harvesting. This time it was surveillance by the private sector, with collusion with political campaigning during the EU referendum through the Vote Leave campaign. As the investigation unfolded, Cambridge Analytica was accused of destroying evidence by putting the company into liquidation.

The resulting exhibition is a thought-provoking installation that combines photography and video and presents a contemporary commentary on issues of freedom of movement, surveillance and data collection. It coincides with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 2019 and runs until 4 January 2020.

Rose Butler: Investigatory Power

Saturday 2 November 2019 to Saturday 4 January 2020. Opening times: Fridays and Saturdays, 2-7pm. Decad, Gneisenaustrasse 52, 10961 Berlin, U7 Sudstern.

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