Edward Snowden

Privacy advocates, Snowden supporters flock to Berlin

Once one of the most spy intense cities in the world, the German capital has become an unlikely haven for anti-surveillance advocates

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 November, 2013, 9:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 November, 2013, 9:18pm

During the cold war, Berlin was one of the most spy-ridden cities in the world. Now it's the place where people go to escape government surveillance.

An international cadre of privacy advocates is settling in Germany's once-divided capital, saying they feel safer here than they do in the United States or Britain, where authorities have vowed to prosecute leakers of official secrets.

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who is one of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's main conduits of leaked data, lives here now. So does Jacob Appelbaum, a former spokesman for WikiLeaks. They were joined earlier this month by Sarah Harrison, a top WikiLeaks activist who stayed at Snowden's side for months in Moscow and now says she fears being harassed by the government if she returns to her native Britain.

In Berlin, they have settled in a counterculture paradise, home to hackers' clubs, cheap rent and a fiercely supportive local population that in 2011 gave more than 10 per cent of the seats in its regional parliament to the Pirate Party, a political organisation that seeks to preserve internet and information freedoms.

It is an ironic twist for a sometimes-bleak city that was once better known as a backdrop to John le Carre novels.

The American listening post atop Teufelsberg hill, once the most important US vantage point from West Berlin into Iron Curtain communications, now stands abandoned, fabric from its torn radar domes flapping in the wind. The spy swaps that once made Glienicke Bridge world-famous have receded into memory.

Now, many here hope that the city could eventually become home to Snowden himself, who has a one-year visa in Russia but met with German lawmaker Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow this month about the possibility of assisting a German investigation into the alleged US monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.

"The whole vibe of Berlin is open to these kinds of developments," said Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology and privacy advocate who was a spokesman for WikiLeaks before he split with the organisation in 2010. "We are an economically successful country. But Berlin is an alternative centre. And the intersection of those two things makes it a very good place" to push for privacy and against surveillance.

Harrison, who is in hiding, said in a statement earlier this month: "[In] the few days I have spent in Germany it is heartening to see the people joining together and calling for their government to do what must be done - to investigate NSA spying revelations, and to offer Edward Snowden asylum."

She planned to stay in Germany, she said, because "our lawyers have advised me that it is not safe to return home" to Britain.

For privacy advocates who have resettled in Berlin permanently, the more the merrier.

"It's a rather inviting social climate right now," said Diani Barreto, an American who has lived in Berlin since shortly after the wall fell in 1989 and works as an anti-surveillance advocate and artist.

"Why be completely paranoid, go mad, have your house surveilled? There's a reason people are coming here."