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Stasi vs. The NSA Back To Back: Who’s Worse – A Visual Guide

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Privacy

Privacy

If you were to compare the evil, reprehensible Stasi to the NSA side by side in a visual comparison, who’s the worse surveillance hawk? The people over at OpenDataCity have put together a nice visual guide with astonishing results. We tend to think of Stasi-scale surveillance as the epitome of evil surveillance, and have completely lost track of what today’s governments are doing to their people.

When you go to this page (in German), you are presented with a nice map that compares the size of the Stasi archives – a large building in Berlin – with the corresponding NSA archives. It’s clear that the NSA’s archives – if used with Stasi technology, for an apples-to-apples comparison – would be quite a bit larger:

Comparison of the Stasi and NSA archives. The Stasi archives were a building in Berlin, the NSA archives seem to be more like a couple of entire blocks.

Comparison of the Stasi and NSA archives. The Stasi archives were a building in Berlin, the NSA archives seem to be more like a couple of entire blocks.

However, this image isn’t very visually friendly for comparison – we want both buildings centered. Let’s pan to the right a bit to get the entire NSA building – or its comparative, fictive building – and the Stasi building centered in picture:

Hmm, ok. The NSA's building seems to be more than a couple of entire blocks in Berlin, and it just keeps going. This isn't easily centered in picture next to the Stasi building.

Hmm, ok. The NSA’s building seems to be more than a couple of entire blocks in Berlin, and it just keeps going. This isn’t easily centered in picture next to the Stasi building.

Perhaps we’ll need to zoom out a bit to get both buildings side by side in order to compare them properly and visually.

Ok, that didn't help too much. The point is starting to get across here...

Ok, zooming out a level didn’t help too much. The point is starting to get across here…

We obviously need to keep zooming out. The scale of what the NSA is doing compared to the “old, evil Stasi” is slowly starting to come across.

Zoomed out to cover large parts of the German countryside, and it's still just NSA archives. How big is this thing anyway?

Zoomed out to cover large parts of the German countryside, and it’s still just NSA archives. How big is this thing anyway?

Ok, we give up: let’s just zoom out until we have the full picture. Turns out we have to continue zooming for quite a while until we have the full picture:

...finally. So where the hated Stasi archives were a full building in Berlin, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the NSA archives would cover the Eastern part of Europe, the entire Middle East, and a good chunk of northeastern Africa. That kind of establishes the orders of magnitude we're dealing with.

…finally. So where the hated Stasi archives were a full building in Berlin, in an apples-to-apples comparison, the NSA archives would cover the Eastern part of Europe, the entire Middle East, and a good chunk of northeastern Africa. That kind of establishes the orders of magnitude we’re dealing with.

I think most people had a hunch that the NSA could be just as bad as the old Stasi, or possibly even slightly worse. This kind of visual apples-to-apples comparison is necessary to establish just how much worse. Humans are terrible at grasping orders of magnitude at an intuitive level.

So where the hated Stasi surveillance was a building in area, the NSA surveillance today is an entire continent.

As a final note, the word Stasi was a contraction of the East German surveillance agency’s full name, Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. It translates to National Security Agency.

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About The Author: Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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33

  1. 1
    Johan

    The only way to react to this is to laugh at the scale of it. Not sure how to react until it sinks in the scale of that thing.

  2. 2
    NotGodwin

    At the risk of Godwin-ing the thread, from Bush-style electoral shenanigans to foreign policy to ultra nationalistic rhetoric, it would be an interesting comparison to see what policies the German population voted for in their pre-war 1930s elections & what actions of their govt were opposed to alongside a list of what Americans not only voted for but also what their govt is permitted to do in their name in the interests of national security.
    One such relatively simple comparison – afaik the Stasi operated against the wishes of the people.

    • 2.1
      LennStar

      The same with the NSA, or did you allow them to do all what they do?

      To put it on solid ground: Every such institution or group – Stasi, NSA, Hitler… – was seen as necessary (or at least a good thing) from many people. Especially in the former GDR (DDR) there where many people who believed in the socialist way.
      At least at the beginning, as it is always the same with “democratic elected” (or revolutionary) totalitarien regimes.
      Hitler especially (like most of the fascist rulers) was seen as a savior.

      The same applies here: In the beginning, most of the people said the PATRIOT act and such like is a good thing.
      But survaillance always detoriates into totalitarism – or state terror if you want to use that word – if there is no big civilian resistance. Thats human nature, I’m afraid.
      It’s like a gambler. He has lost, but he might win the next.
      We didn’t found the “terrorists”, but we might find them the next time.

      Not to mention that “Freedom fighter” and “terrorist” ist the same except for your perspective.
      Just take Snowdon.

    • 2.2
      Slacker

      It’s hard to seriously discuss ANY policy area in the current so-called “free democratic states” without Godwining the discussion immediately.

      So don’t be shy about it, and ignore the Godwin Nazis trying to silence you for doing that. Oh, wait…

      • 2.2.1
        lunalight

        I am so sick of “Godwin apologies”.. Mike Godwin was just another guy on the Internet with an opinion. He’s not a lawmaker, and the “Law” is just another way to silence conversation. CALL IT OUT AND FIGHT BACK AND HAVE THE DAMNED CONVERSATION.

    • 2.3
      Anonymous

      Have they? Have you asked? Have you asked East-Germans there (DDR) and then (say – 1970’s)? Because from what I know, they would tell you it was operating perfectly the way they wished. After all – they have voted for it. And it was all in accordance with the law.

  3. 3
    del2124

    I mean, there were also only 16 million people in East Germany. There are 313 million people in the U.S. today.

    • 3.1
      Ano Nymous

      That is a difference of about twenty times.
      The difference between Germany’s 16 million and the world’s 7 billion is about 440 times.
      The difference in data amount is about NINE HUNDRED MILLION times..

      • 3.1.1
        frank87

        The qualitie of NSA-data is a lot worse. TheStasi used informants, that filtered the input. The scale of the NSA suggests they are not very pickey on quality issues.

  4. 4
    rgd

    Actually it translates to “Ministry of national security” if you want to be 100% correct.

    • 4.1

      Well, yes, I’ve seen the objection before, so for reference: a “state” can’t be used in US English, it takes on a different meaning. A “state something” in Europe, meaning that the something covers the country, is a “National something” in US English. (You said this already, but for reference.)

      Same thing with “Ministry” – it typically means a department headed by a minister in the administration, somebody on the Cabinet (a minister). However, in US English in particular, those words have a predominantly religious meaning, and AFAIK, the Stasi wasn’t headed by a single minister. Therefore, I think an “Agency” is a better translation.

      Cheers,
      Rick

  5. 5
    Anonymous

    what is sad, i think, is that in the USA there are rallies and marches going on, (particularly yesterday, Independence Day) in protest to this surveillance. everywhere else that it’s happening, the UK being a prime example, not even a moan! considering how the UK was at the forefront in WWII, it’s strange how the people there just sit back and let it all wash over them! i suppose that once it has gone past the ‘point of no return’ there will be all hell let loose! or perhaps now with the reports of France doing the same thing, the other EU countries will stop posturing about the USA spying, admit that they are just as bad and hope it will all quiet down so it can be ‘business as usual’ with the only ‘bad people’ being found and watched being ordinary citizens, whose biggest ‘acts of terrorism’ are sharing a song or a movie!!

  6. 6
    exscape

    The 5 zettabyte number is a crazy miscalculation, though, and it’s easy to see why it doesn’t make sense.
    5 zettabytes = 5120 exabytes = 5.24 million petabytes = 5.36 billion terabytes.
    It would take 1.8 billion 3 TB hard drives to store that amount of data. That appears to be more than two years worth of HDD production in the entire world, so unless the NSA owns a chain of HDD factories, where do they get that kind of storage?
    AFAIK tape etc. doesn’t provide any multi-order-of-magnitude increases over regular HDDs, either.

    5 zettabytes is also about 15 times the total internet traffic of 2011. It doesn’t make sense that they would be able to store **LITERALLY ALL**, every byte, of internet traffic, for over a decade.

    Now PROCESS, on the other hand… It seems far, far more likely that they could *process* that amount of information over a time span of a decade or so.

    • 6.1
      Zerp

      Compression my friend. Most data such as text can easily be compressed down to 10% of full data size. So actually would “only” need a few months of Hard Drive production which is not totally impossible.

      You also need to take into account that not all that storage is actually on their own NSA servers, but they have a backdoor into all of Googles, Facebooks and so on servers so they can actually add all these massive corporations server farms to their own archive. Google alone has well above one million servers working and god knows how much storage every one of them is capable of accessing.

    • 6.2
      name of my choice

      One modern tape (LTO6, already mass-produced) provides 2.5TB native, has 2.5:1 hardware compression and is very much cheaper than a HDD of similar size, at least for enterprises.

      They are perfect for such storage, though I cannot speculate on the amount of worldwide production and obviously on the amount used by the NSA.

      Besides what was already said, don’t forget that there also is hardware deduplication, which additionally decreases the total amount of storage space needed, and having in mind that most internet traffic is similar to already existing (recorded) traffic, then deduplication ratios of 20:1 or even more wouldn’t surprise me. To be honest, I doubt data recorded directly on tapes is deduplicated, but it makes sense to first record it to hard disks, for fast access (and using deduplication at this stage), then when data ages it might be moved to tapes, for long-term storage – and data on tapes degrades far more slowly.

      • 6.2.1
        exscape

        I still think it’s very dubious. Also see the answers here:
        http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/16829/will-nsas-utah-data-center-be-able-to-handle-and-process-five-zettabytes-of-dat

        Both the cost and physical space required seems to far surpass what is reasonably available.

        @Zerp, as for them having backdoor into Google, Facebook etc… Does it really sound reasonable that they could just tap into those companies’ servers to store perhaps a billion terabytes of data? Even if they had some massive secret agreement (since there is *NO* way this could be done without them knowing) that sounds extremely unreasonable and more like a conspiracy theory than anything else IMO.

        • Zerp

          They don’t tap into the servers to STORE data, they just access the data that is already stored there.

          Why would NSA need their own copy of data that is already stored on googles / facebooks server?

          Since NSA have access to the data it can be included into what they can search for in “their” archive. Understand that Google, Facebook, Microsoft are part of NSAs archive by providing them access.

        • “that sounds extremely unreasonable and more like a conspiracy theory than anything else IMO.”

          And now with the answer in our hands, it was not a conspiracy theory. Makes you wonder what else isn’t a conspiracy theory right? O.o

  7. 7

    I disagree about the metric chosen for comparison : what matters is not the volume of data captured (measured in surface of filing cabinets or in petabytes) – what matters is what proportion of human activity is sampled. We produced more data than we used to and the legitimate surveillance requirements should be augmented accordingly. What would be more interesting is to show that while the Stasi only managed to record a small fraction of the communications, the NSA can record them all.

  8. 8
    Ano Nymous

    As I wrote in Swedish here: http://www.annatroberg.se/2013/06/11/dns-chefredaktor-lovar-bort-ett-meddelarskydd-som-inte-langre-finns/

    five zettabytes would be approximately stacks of books with a surface of a few to a few tens of hectares (same orders of magnitude in acres) and reaching all the way to THE MOON.

  9. 9
    Ano Nymous

    That is a difference of about twenty times.
    The difference between Germany’s 16 million and the world’s 7 billion is about 440 times.
    The difference in data amount is about NINE HUNDRED MILLION times.

  10. 10
    steelneck

    These words once came out of the mouth of Obama:

    “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government, is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism … should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.”

    And just to give us some perspective on Mr. Snowden, these words are from the Nuremburg trials:

    “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring”.

  11. 11
    DavidXanatos

    >It would take 1.8 billion 3 TB hard drives to store that amount of data. That appears to be more than two years worth of HDD production in the entire world,

    yes yes and thay kinda head,
    do you remember the “flod” in Thailand after which hdd prices wend up for 1,5 years almost like in that time the production would have min minimized a lot.

    do you really think that companies that make a living from HDD manufacturing would need 1,5 year to restore their facilities?
    Thay most likely ware up and running after like 3 months, and the rest of the time ware producing HD’s for a big foreign customer, a.k.a. the NSA.

  12. 12

    one sentence for EDWARD SNOWDEN!!
    you are simply great man
    i salute you as you left all the things for my Internet life privacy

  13. 13
    John-Albert Eadie

    Point is, the NSA makes the US a spy nation. Like
    the USSR was supposed to have been. That and
    continual remote assassinations by robots
    would not have been believed in the
    1940’s / 50’s USA.

  14. 14
    Joshua Flint

    The old Stasi isn’t totally dead. Yes, the Stasi has ceased active operations. However, even today, Germany still has a government agency which is taking care of the old Stasi files (Bundesbeauftragter für Unterlagen des ehemaligen Staatssicherheitsdientes der DDR, abbreviated as BStU). This may be fine so far as many people who were spotted on by the Stasi would like to read their own files.

    However, the very same agency also uses to give copies of Stasi files to other authorities. The list of those authorities which have received Stasi files is 120(!) long. It includes agencies in Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, France, Canada and – the United States. Note that the list doesn’t tell me which country a particular agency is based in. I have to guess myself that “Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz” is in Germany and that “National Security Agency” is in the US. Some entries have been made unreadable by the BStU while other entries only consist of acronyms that I have never heard of, so it is very likely that my enumeration is incomplete.

    The list also includes the NSA. Yes, the NSA has access to Stasi files. This means that if the Stasi had your home wired in 1982, then the NSA is probably able to read what you said back in 1982 when you talked to someone in your house.

    This is scary. The NSA is not just worse than the Stasi. They know everything that the Stasi used to know. Even though the Stasi invaded privacy heavily, nobody would have expected in 1982 that Federal (Read: West German) authorities would ever get access to Stasi files, not to speak of US authorities such as the NSA.

  15. 15
    MiMak

    Actually Ministerium für Staatssicherheit translates to Agency for State Security but other than that the look and feel of both are the same.

  16. 16
    Léon

    That doesn’t mean much, because now they can stock everything they want , thanks to the incredible progress in data storages… it s all cheap,automatically sorted,analysed,etc…..
    Stasi had to keep a reasonable size,and manpower,and budget… and they were doing nothing new…NSA is perhaps the world leader in new technology and data collect..

    And most of all if people are so dumb to buy themselves their tracking tools (iphone,laptop) and then provide all their private information …
    some people i know they post everything they do to facebook… then with friends,circles,re-link … even if you provided only a false name, they can identifate you,and localize you, by your friends, or by your interests… we are all trapped…

  17. […] comparison coming short in two important aspects. First, the surveillance now is mind-bogglingly more far-reaching than the East German Stasi ever managed to accomplish. The Stasi was the dreaded secret police of […]

  18. […] is an interesting visualization that compares the NSA to the Stasi in an apples-to-apples comparison. If the NSA used the same […]

  19. […] are in effect living in a full on police state where the state is able to spy on everything we do? Comparisons have been made between how the stasi was able to spy on and record all apsects of people’s lives in East […]

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