Monday, October 28, 2013

Will Angela Merkel stop texting after US spying claims?

Texting is frowned upon in the Bundestag - but not if you\'re the chancellor of Germany.

Angela Merkel is a texter: she does it all the time. There she is during a debate, thumbs going furiously.

Sometimes she texts colleagues across the chamber, and then looks up and catches their eye to check they have got the message.

In her office in the Kanzleramt - the Chancellery - it lies on the floor, charging. But the rest of the time, it is not far from her hand.

Since she has learnt that others might be reading her messages at the National Security Agency in Maryland outside Washington, she has said that she doesn\'t plan to change her habits.

An enterprising German company has marketed what it calls the Chancellor Phone - one so secure that prying eyes and ears cannot intrude.

The chancellor will no doubt use the Chancellor Phone - but you cannot doubt that recent events have shaken her.

In Germany, particularly in East Germany where Angela Merkel grew up, people feel strongly about the state tapping phones and bugging rooms.

Listening in

In the east of Berlin, an amazing complex of buildings houses what was once the headquarters of the ministry of state security, the Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit - the Stasi.

Today, the headquarters is a museum and a home for the vast archive where East Germans can learn who spied on whom.

The Stasi secret police museum charts a history of surveillance. This is a camera concealed in the door of a car.

One Berlin politician learnt after the Berlin Wall came down that her husband had spied on her. She divorced him.

The offices themselves now display all the paraphernalia of eavesdropping - the hollow tree-trunks with a hole for the camera; the jacket buttons that turn out to be lenses. The spying of the past is there for all to see.

When communism collapsed, there were 91,000 people working for the Stasi.

It is easy to find maps showing old Stasi premises, and just in the area where I live in Berlin, there are seven places used by the spooks of the Stasi - seven secret flats within an area not much bigger than a football field. That\'s how pervasive spying on citizens was.

Just behind where I live, 79 Dunckerstrasse was, it turns out, rented by the Stasi.

At the end of my square - Helmholzplatz - there was an apartment which purported to be for students but which was actually the place where one Major Grabner and his colleague, Wolf, met informers.

The Stasi museum houses an old wrist watch fitted with recording equipment

At the other end of the square, there is now a bright blue door between a second-hand clothes shop and a chi-chi restaurant. This used to be the door through which informers would go.

Everybody knew what was going on. After all, Chancellor Kohl used to go off to telephone boxes to make sensitive calls when he was the leader of West Germany - he assumed the official phones he used might be tapped by the East German authorities.

Era of openness

So when Angela Merkel says now that friends do not spy on friends, she means what she says. She knows about it.

But perhaps Chancellor Merkel has just been too trusting despite growing up in a police state. I\'ve noticed how she seems to have far less security in general than do other world leaders.

I once went to a meeting she was addressing, a big meeting with demonstrators. One man was striding up and down along the entrance hall, waiting for her. He had a long stick with a banner on the end of it.

I can remember thinking as she was about to arrive that he was not going to be allowed to remain there, right on her route as she walked by.

And sure enough, the police went up to him. There was a long discussion. But instead of him being carted off, as would have happened in the United States or, I think, Britain, he was told that the big stick was a problem.

He was welcome to stay and wave the banner in her face, but not with the stick.

I found that refreshing. And also the way she keeps texting.

What did the Americans learn? Only they know. It would be nice to think that it was nothing more useful than: \"I\'ll be back from Brussels later, dear. Why don\'t you get a couple of schnitzel from the corner shop?\"
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