A frequently used argument about the dangers of surveillance regards the possibility to abuse surveillance systems by future governments who are less benevolent than the ones who implement them for the protection of our liberty. What would happen if the surveillance apparatus of a democratic government such as the Obama administration would end up in the hands of a dictatorial, even malevolent political actor with intent to cause us harm and destroy our way of life?
I would like to give some substance to this argument by presenting a couple of classified documents that recently was handed over to my museum by the head of the Danish Postal Service. They were discovered in the lower part of a double-bottomed chest, just a couple of weeks ago.
The first piece is dated 5 September 1939, in other words just a few days after the outbreak of World War II. It is classified as “confidential” (Fortrolig) and has been issued by an authority called the
General Directory for the Post and Telegraph Service, which sorted under the Ministry for Public Works. At the receiving end were all the Danish Post Masters and Telegraph Managers as well as the Manager for the State Telephone Office, which handled all foreign-bound telephone traffic from Denmark at the time.
The document, which is signed by the General Director of the Post and Telegraph service, Christen Mondrup, instructs the managers within the Post- and Telecommunications sector to cooperate fully with the Danish security police, due to the “extraordinary situation at hand”. It outlines a rudimentary procedure for the collaboration: the security police has to show ID, and there are certain telephone numbers that the staff can call in case of uncertainty about specific requests. Moreover, it is emphasized that the postmasters and telegraph managers should involve as few as possible in their dealings with the security police.
The final part of the message calls for a heightened attention to suspicious communication between people in Denmark and the outside world:
“keep an extra careful eye on persons, whose postal, telegraphic or telephonic correspondence with other countries, could give the impression of being concerned with something other than legitimate conditions […]“
This monitoring was something that should be carried out continuously, without the involvement of the security police. And it had to be done “as discreetly as possible”, the General Director underlined. All observations of suspicious communication should be reported without further ado to the General Directory, in envelopes marked “confidential”.
As I have written elsewhere on this blog, it was primarily communists and Nazis that were being monitored by the authorities in Denmark during the 1930’s. At this specific point in history, it was probably the Nazis in particular that concerned the authorities, as Denmark shared land-border with the Third Reich, which just a few days earlier had invaded Poland.
The second document is a little more than five years younger, from 31 January 1945. It is classified as “Strictly Confidential”(Strengt Fortrolig) and starts in good Danish: “Controlling the Telegraph, Telephone and Radio”. After merely six lines, however, the language switches to German – and there is a reference to a certain SS Standartenführer und Oberst der Polizei: an SS officer and colonel of the German Security Police in Denmark, Sicherheitsdienst Dänemark.
I will not go into details, but the document forwards instructions from the head of the German Security Police in occupied Denmark to the personnel at all the Danish telegraph, telephone and radio
stations, telling them to cooperate fully with German technical officers equipped with a certain kind of ID from said security service. These “controllers” should be granted access to all available spaces and technical devices, and all kinds of information or technical data that the German officers asked for should be handed over, without protests, by the Danish staff.
So the point that I am trying to make, by showing these classified historical documents, is that 20th century European history gives good reason to be concerned about power abuse and unintended consequences in relation to secret state surveillance. Denmark was invaded by Nazi Germany on 9 April 1940 and the wartime censorship and surveillance regime that the Danish government had established in a step-by-step process after September 1939, was quickly appropriated by the Occupying Power. The practical running of this apparatus under Nazi rule is a rather complex matter, however, as the Germans largely relied on the ordinary Danish staff as censors, so there was a lot of obstruction and resistance within the system. Yet it is indisputable that the Occupying Power used these surveillance measures to discourage talk about sensitive matters amongst the population and to gather intelligence about Danish resistance Groups.
And the Danish case is far from unique. There are quite a few examples from our not-too-distant European past of surveillance measures that have been implemented by democratic governments, in order to protect the population of a particular society, but which afterwards – through the nasty twists of history – have turned into weapons and tools of oppression in the hands of actors who are hostile to these societies.