On Three-Week Trip to Historic Berlin, Students Explore Issues of Surveillance, Privacy

On Three-Week Trip to Historic Berlin, Students Explore Issues of Surveillance, Privacy

By Associate Professor of Computer Science Jeremy Hansen

The day after Norwich University’s Commencement this year, I took 17 students with me to Berlin, Germany, for a three-week, 3-credit “Maymester” class. In this class, we covered the past, present, and future of surveillance, privacy, and technology in Germany and the United States. We would also eat sausage. And Döner Kebab; lots of Döner Kebab (a Turkish version of a Gyros).

Maymester is a new study abroad option, a three-week summer session that begins immediately after spring semester. Maymester courses are taught overseas by Norwich faculty; the courses taught during Maymester, the faculty teaching them, and the destinations, change year to year and are administered through the International Center.

We arrived in Berlin quite late in the evening on Monday, May 16. We coordinated with Norwich faculty at our international micro-campus, CityLAB: Berlin. Our Berlin Program Coordinator Holger Schwarz met us at the airport and got all of us on taxis to our various apartments and homestays.

With information packets and maps in hand, we were able to navigate the famously reliable Berlin public transportation system and meet at the Bundestag federal parliament building the next morning. There, we climbed to the top of the building where a dome lets visitors look down (and perform their own surveillance) on the German parliament while it’s in session. We did not observe the inner workings of state government that day, though, as the session was recessed at that time. After lunch at the Mall of Berlin, we headed to the CityLAB: Berlin studio space and had a classroom discussion about the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police.

The next morning, we had an epoch tour of the German Historical Museum, where our tour guide took about an hour to walk us through the history of West and East Germany from World War II through reunification in 1990. This tour set the stage and provided the context for most of the historical references we read about in the class, and helped the students to start to understand what a surveillance state looks like. That afternoon, we watched the relevant German movie “The Lives of Others,” which demonstrates through fiction how pervasively and cruelly the Stasi operated in East Germany. The next day, our coverage of the Stasi was brought to a conclusion by a visit to the Stasi Prison Memorial in northeastern Berlin. Our tour guide there showed us the cells and interrogation rooms, which we all found disturbing and fascinating. He also pointed out some of the parallels between the Stasi and modern systems of surveillance and intelligence gathering. The whole experience really stuck with me, and all the students reported that the prison visit was one of the most important parts of the trip.

We continued to work in the classroom over the next few days, talking about the effects of modern surveillance, the history of privacy, and legal privacy protections in Germany.

20160707_sbm_maymester_bundestagOur class topic shifted somewhat to the current political environment in Germany, which led us to learn about the German Pirate Party, a group of legislators dedicated to issues of surveillance and privacy, which has 12 elected members in the Berlin Parliament. The Pirates have been vocal opponents of government and corporate surveillance, and generally support uncensored, unrestricted, and private internet usage. Later that evening, we met with two elected Pirates, Dr. Simon Weiss and Alexander Morlang, in the Abgeordnetenhaus Berlin, the city-state’s House of Representatives building. They discussed their history, current legislative efforts, and the future of their party and then answered some of our questions. We returned the next day to take a formal tour of the building and saw the Berlin Parliament in session.

Further class topics included a history of communications and cryptography, surveillance technology, email encryption, and America’s privacy laws. After everyone had absorbed all of that material by the third week of the trip, we visited one of the first independent hackerspaces in the world, called c-base. Monic Meisel, one of the founders of the very successful Freifunk (free radio) project, met us when we arrived and explained her project to us. The project’s aim is to create free non-commercial infrastructure for wireless networks that anyone can contribute to or use. In particular, she explained how the laws of Germany were shifting somewhat to make the project easier for people to join, and described how Freifunk volunteers were providing Internet access to new refugees in Germany. After Meisel’s presentation, we were given a guided tour through all of the hackerspace’s rooms and equipment. This experience inspired all of us to duplicate the idea at home on the Norwich campus: to create a social space where students could collaborate on projects and have easy access to equipment like 3D printers, a wood shop, an electronics lab, networking gear, and computers.

We spent the last few days of the trip discussing what should be next to remedy the sad state of privacy in the United States. The students expressed an interest in continuing on two different fronts. The first idea is to develop an interactive lesson for middle school students to demonstrate how privacy can be violated by all the different activities we might engage in online. The second idea is to advocate for legal changes, particularly by providing individuals with reports about what personal information is kept and how it is used. Students plan to draft some model legislation and offer it to the Vermont and New Hampshire legislatures over the course of the next year.

In addition to those academic highlights in Berlin, we also had a “scavenger hunt” with more than 70 places, foods, and activities that students could do to compete against one another while in Berlin. Among those scavenger hunt items, students enjoyed German soccer matches (and have the BVB jerseys to prove it!), went to the zoo, visited the airport-turned-public-park at Tempelhof, saw some actors wearing American uniforms improperly at Checkpoint Charlie, ate blood sausage, sampled real Bavarian pretzels, and ate German pork hocks. It was also asparagus season and spears were on sale everywhere, but the students were surprised that the asparagus was white and as big around as your thumb.

I plan to take another group of students in 2017 and hope to continue this every year. To see more pictures, follow the build-up to future Berlin trips, and to keep up-to-date on our privacy-related projects, please visit the class Facebook page.