9 Places Where You Can See Spying and Surveillance in Action
A different sort of listening party.
Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the CIA, NSA, and the spying that was taking place by American agencies against their own citizens, confirmed what many already suspected: we are being watched. Of course, surveillance is nothing new. But as technical capabilities and post 9/11 politics converge, the spying is spreading.
In honor of Bug Week, here are nine places where you can see evidence of the public being watched by our own governments, by other governments, by city and state agencies, and even by each other. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.
While the CIA and NSA are notorious for spying on the American people, Britain’s surveillance state may be even more aggressive.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) serves much the same function as the NSA across the pond. Its base of operations is this space-age circular compound, nicknamed “The Doughnut.” Spying is a boom business these days—the main ring building, built in 2003, was soon bursting at the seams with GCHQ employees, so a small set of ancillary buildings was added to the site. [Read more]
This abandoned NSA field station sits atop an 262-foot artificial hill in the Grunewald forest on the west edge of Berlin.
Believed to be part of ECHELON, a global network of listening stations, the facility was erected on the hill during the Cold War and run by the U.S. National Security Agency to eavesdrop on communist East Berlin. To their surprise, the Agency found that the local Ferris wheel, erected each year for the German-American Festival, helped relay signals and improve their listening efforts, and the US radio spooks asked if the wheel could be left up for a longer period.
The station was abandoned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and though there were plans to resurrect it for commercial purposes, today it is a vandalized and abandoned shell. [Read more]
It’s not just spies that are watching. Increasingly local city and state governments have command and control centers to actively watch their citizens.
This Mexico City urban state surveillance system doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s watching. In fact, the building holding the headquarters for the Distrito Federál’s Ciudad Segura (Safe City) program goes so far as to resemble a third-story row of security cameras focused outward, aimed directly at its citizens. It ranks among the most advanced surveillance and intelligence gathering centers in the world. [Read more]
More ziggurat of intimidation than high-tech surveillance station, the eye-catching complex known as The Helix (El Helicoide) rises out of the Venezuelan slums looking like something out of a super-villain’s dream. With its intelligence headquarters, mysterious prison, and general air of secrecy, it acts the part as well.
Designed to be an ultra-modern retail destination, construction began on the Helix complex in 1956. The tiered shopping center was set to have a five-star hotel, a park, and floors of luxury shopping. But the dream of an easily accessible mecca of retail and luxury was scuttled due to money woes, and the Venezuelan state began using the space for a number of its agencies.
The whole complex is now home to the Venezuelan Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP). This secretive intelligence agency has its headquarters in the eccentric building and has also started a not-so-secret prison at the site. [Read more]
Museum in der “Runden Ecke”
The Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi, was the Soviet Union’s secret, surveillance-focused police force in East Germany after World War II.
They were notorious for spying on the people of East Germany by turning normal citizens against one another and using brutal tactics to quell any dissent. Techniques ranging from secretly bugging phones to recruiting spies directly out of grade school. With these methods and many more, the Stasi created one of the most effective states of fear ever.
Germany’s Museum in der “Runden Ecke” (literally “Museum in the ‘Round Corner’”) sits in a curved corner space that was once an office of the sinister East German secret police. It now houses a memorial museum full of their vintage gear and the tools of the their ignominious trade. [Read more]
Down the well-guarded halls of the CIA compound in Langley, Virginia there is a collection of declassified artifacts, weapons, and other items from the world’s secret history collectively known as the CIA Museum.
Executive-Director William Colby founded the CIA Museum in 1972. Since its establishment the collection has amassed over 3,500 pieces of covert intelligence history, with pieces as diverse as hollow coins and body cameras built for pigeons.
The CIA Museum is a catalogue of a history that was never meant to be seen by the public. It still can’t be. Located in CIA headquarters, it is not open to anyone without security clearance. [Read more]
When the Soviets built Tallinn’s luxurious, but imposing, Hotel Viru in the 1970s, Estonians joked that the building was made of microconcrete, as in concrete and microphones.
Few people were ever allowed on the hotel’s top floor, which the Soviet managers insisted contained only technical rooms. When the KGB fled the country in the early 1990s, the newly liberated Estonians discovered that the so-called technical rooms housed elaborate, vintage James Bond-esque listening equipment.
Throughout the former Soviet satellite states numerous KGB museums have similar displays including the KGB Muzeum in Prague, the KGB cells in Estonia, the “corner house” in Latvia, and the Terror House in Budapest.
In the Tallinn museum visitors can take guided tours that focus on the more absurd elements of living in a surveillance state. [Read more]
International Spy Museum
For a somewhat lighter treatment of the world of spies one can visit the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Counterintuitively, the museum dedicates its time and space to educating the general public on the techniques of how to overthrow leaders, win wars, or just go through the trash bags of the rich and famous.
Opened in 2002, this collection is the largest ever collection of international espionage artifacts displayed in a public setting. Several items have been revealed to the general public for the very first time, ranging from James Bond kitsch to the very real and historically significant. [Read more]
The Secret Agent Supply Store
Should all these monuments to surveillance and statecraft leave you feeling like you want in on the action, you can always visit the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. in Chicago.
The store has every gadget a secret agent could need: secret disguises, carrier pigeons, voice modulators, and other super spy necessities. In fact, this is one place where you can feel good about engaging in a bit of spying. The profits from the “Secret Agent Supply Co.” go to support the 826Chicago, the children’s writing workshop and tutoring center attached to the store. [Read more]
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