Earlier this month, a leftist art collective in Germany called the Centre for Political Beauty (Zentrum für Politische Schönheit or “ZPS”) launched a website to name and shame neo-Nazis. At soko-chemnitz.de, people were invited to examine photographs taken during this summer’s violent anti-immigration protests in Chemnitz, and in exchange for identifying suspected right-wing demonstrators, would receive a crowd-funded reward of at least €30. The twist? The image recognition database was a honeypot: a sophisticated hoax to induce neo-Nazis into identifying themselves.
This recent project gives rise to serious questions regarding the exploitation of personal data for illegitimate or unlawful purposes – even if those purposes are seen by many as socially or ethically justified.
The Chemnitz Context
Known as Karl-Marx Stadt when it was part of the Soviet bloc, Chemnitz is an industrial city in eastern Germany with a population of about 250,000. After German reunification in 1990, the political and economic systems changed drastically as democracy and capitalism replaced the communist regime. Similarly, as thousands of East Germans relocated to the more prosperous West, expatriates and immigrants filled shortages in the labour market and made their home in East Germany. For the first time in decades, the East was forced to deal with the challenges posed by multiculturalism, immigration and globalism.
Such problems have only intensified in light of Chancellor Merkel’s more liberal migrant policy, which has seen an influx of those seeking asylum and refugee status. Accordingly, Eastern Germany has seen a significant surge in far-right populism and xenophobic protests. In 2017, nearly 25 per cent of the city’s residents voted for the far-right German nationalist party, Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or “AfD”).
Tensions between “native” East Germans and immigrants made headlines again this August, when a German man was stabbed to death in Chemnitz. When police revealed that his two attackers were Kurdish (one from Iraq and the other Syria) far-right groups quickly organised anti-immigration protests. Nearly 7,000 people joined the demonstrations, which were marked by hate speech and violence against non-Germans. The swastika and other Nazi symbols, including making the Nazi salute, are banned in Germany.
Known for its “activist art”, the ZPS uses satirical stunts, performance pieces and interventions to draw attention to various humanitarian issues. By way of example, the group designed a monument in 2010 to “memorialise” Western co-responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. In 2017, they built a “Holocaust Memorial” in front of nationalist politician Björn Höcke’s house.
In the weeks following the Chemnitz protests, ZPS published pictures of far-right rioters online at soko-chemnitz.de, and asked visitors to “identify and denounce your work colleagues, neighbors or acquaintances today and collect instant cash!” The rewards started at €34 (£30) with special bonuses awarded for identifying photos of people who were police, or members of Germany’s domestic security agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz or BfV). While the ZPS had indeed previously identified over 1,500 individuals who participated in the protest, the real goal of the campaign was to get far-right sympathizers to search for and thereby name themselves.
The honeypot design was simple. When visitors entered the website, they were presented with only 20 pictures at a time. Much to the delight of ZPS, Chemnitz protesters went straight to the site’s search bar to type in their own name and the names of fellow participants, to see if they’d already been named. The average visitor searched for the names of seven people.
In this way, the protesters “delivered their own entire network to ZPS without realising it. They told us more about themselves than publicly available sources ever betrayed.” ZPS founder Philipp Ruch claims that use of the website has created “the most relevant set of data on right-wing extremism that currently exists in Germany.”
The Special Commission Chemnitz site sparked a huge controversy in Germany for several reasons. Firstly, many questioned the legality of the website itself. Photos of demonstrators were uploaded without permission from the individuals pictured, an action which could potentially contravene German and European data protection law. Although no such private information other than photographs were revealed on soko-chemnitz.de, users were asked to send in names, addresses, and names of employers of demonstrators. DeutscheWelle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, reported that “Germany’s data protection commissioner’s office said it was looking into whether the ZPS site was acting within legal limits.”
Beyond the textual or purely legalistic overtures of data protection law violations, the website elicits serious concerns over whether doxing private individuals is ever justified. Much has been written about the free speech rights of those who promote abhorrent ideologies. Those with a more libertarian perspective on free speech will insist that Nazi speech must be defended because it is so especially controversial. But what about the right to privacy?
In his article entitled Why it’s important to name the Nazis, journalist David Perry argued that identifying those whose pictures appear online attending a public rally is justified. Neo-Nazi protesters are people intending to do or to advocate harm, and have therefore surrendered their right to anonymity. The right to freedom of expression does not extend to a right of social impunity. One could also consider that view that as such protests occurred in a public space, any reasonable expectation of privacy was materially lacking.
But in the European —and notably, German— context, rights to privacy are especially treasured given the history of both Nazi and Communist security service tactics. These regimes demonstrated in the most heinous ways possible that collection of personal information can lead to harm. The idea of encouraging and paying private individuals to “out” their friends, neighbours and colleagues —even if for a seemingly noble cause—does not sit well with many Europeans today. Interior Minister Roland Wöller went so far as to say that the ZPS website “endangered social cohesion”.
Consider the distinction between how the United States and Germany “name and shame” sex offenders. The United States was the first country to establish a national sex offender registration and notification system in 1994. By contrast, Germany has no national sex offender registration legislation, nor a public notification system. This perhaps illustrates the extent to which Germans value the protection of individual privacy, even where those individuals have committed criminal or otherwise morally reprehensible acts.
The soko-chemnitz.de project forces upon the public an uncomfortable question: do neo-Nazis have a right to privacy? Those who say “no” would likely choose to identify and denounce the Chemnitz protesters as potentially dangerous far-right radicals. In so doing, one could take comfort in having participated in some sort of righteous, anti-Nazi resistance movement. But at what cost? Doxing campaigns have gone terribly wrong in the past, and errors in identification can led to irreparable emotional and reputation damage, or even job loss and suicide. On the other hand, refusing to participate in the campaign could arouse suspicions that one sympathizes or even identifies with the Nazi ideology.
As a piece of political performance art, soko-chemnitz.de was certainly provocative. But it is also politically significant. Coverage of the website forced people to consider their own personal prioritisation of ideals associated with a democratic society: to what extent should we protect privacy, expression, freedom from interference, security, liberty, trust…? It’s a predicament as old as political philosophy itself, and an increasingly uncomfortable balancing act to achieve in today’s world of hyper-surveillance and social media. Perhaps this was the disquieting, satirical reminder the ZPS was hoping to convey all along.
*Note on soko-chemnitz.de
ZPS has replaced its original soko-chemnitz website with a splash page explaining the honeypot campaign. You can visit earlier archives of the page using the Wayback Machine. This is what the website looked like on 4 December 2018, absent the images of individuals, which have since been deleted.