In February of this year, I received an e-mail with a strange symbol in the address line, a broken red padlock next to the sender’s name indicating that the message was not encrypted—specifically, that the message, as well as my reply, had been sent without a basic protection known as “Transport Layer Security.” The range and confidential nature of some of the e-mails that came and went this way was troubling: one from an editor about a potential assignment, another from a close family friend and local politician, yet another from my credit card company to notify me about a potential fraudulent charge. I became nervous: How long had some of my messages been unsecured? Who was watching? These questions seem to become only more pertinent as the shadow of the internet lengthens into every detail of our daily correspondence.
This fear of some nefarious, eavesdropping intelligence has deep roots in twentieth-century fiction, much of it European, from the speculative approaches of 1984 and The Trial to novels such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Darkness at Noon, which confront this menace through the immediacy of realism. Romanian Nobel laureate Herta Müller’s recently translated novel, The Fox Was Ever the Hunter—originally published in 1992 in her native German and now translated into English by Philip Boehm—is among the best additions to this anxious canon following the Cold War. Müller was hounded for years by her country’s intelligence apparatus: an experience wrought with desperation, fear, and paranoia that she brings to the fore in Fox. For Müller, growing up in a repressive dictatorial regime, the concerns of surveillance were not simply questions of hypothetical snooping, but instead held the highest stakes imaginable, those of life and death.
Under Nicolae Ceau̧sescu, who held power from 1965 to 1989, the Romanian government operated one of the largest and most repressive secret polices in the world, the Securitate. The Securitate led brutal crackdowns on dissidents using a broad network of informants that made organization nearly impossible, while anyone found in opposition would be tortured or killed. Forced entry and bugging of homes and offices was commonplace, leading to the widespread paranoia seen in Müller’s novel.
Under the vigilance of the Securitate, any citizen, no matter how loyal, was a potential target of suspicion, which is how a village schoolteacher named Adina finds herself under surveillance. A Securitate agent, Pavel, slowly begins to infiltrate Adina’s life. Müller never discloses why Adina has come under government scrutiny, mimicking, in a way, the obliqueness of the Securitate’s intimidation as well as the omnipresent dread Romanians felt during the Ceau̧sescu years. Kicking down doors is one way to control a population, but there is something equally sinister, if not more effective, in perpetuating a question of who is safe and who is not—and who is watching.
The apartment is rather plain and unadorned, with the exception of a sentimental fox-fur rug that her mother bought her when she was a little girl. Nothing seems amiss, until “her foot slips on the fox’s tail, which slides away from the rest of the fur. The tail has come off where the stripe running down the back is the lightest.” At first Adina attributes this to rot or age, but the break is crisp and precise, and the truth of the moment begins to sink in. As the novel progresses, the other limbs are neatly cut from the rug—signaling to Adina that the Securitate are closing in. Still, she is never certain of what she might have done, what they might want from her.
With post–Cold War hindsight, many of Adina’s concerns seem dated, a great comfort to a contemporary reader unfamiliar with such a life. Yet the core of Fox, the visceral fear of surveillance that Adina faces, is pertinent in the modern, digital age—in America especially, where recent revelations of the muscular and expansive level of government surveillance into the mundane, day-to-day e-mail and phone communications of ordinary citizens. I felt it with the revelation of the little red padlock, but its symptoms are everywhere: private or “incognito” modes on web browsers that will obscure your online history, phone apps like Snapchat that center around deleting information, or, as one of my former roommates even did, physically taping over a laptop camera. (James Comey, the director of the FBI, has admitted to taping over his own.)
In Müller’s novel, the watcher isn’t just the secret police but also, quite clearly, us. The oppressiveness of observations sinks into every facet of Fox: through the immediacy of the present tense and through an overwhelming amount of detail. In the opening scene, Müller forces us to intrude on an intimate moment, Clara and Adina sunbathing topless on a rooftop filled with ants, one of which “has the head of a pin, the sun can’t find any place to burn. The sun stings. The ant loses its way.” Starting with this small-scale description of the insects, Müller builds the scene through programmatic depiction—the beating sun, the surrounding poplars, the blood on a pricked finger, the pubic hair peeking out from under Clara’s swimsuit bottom. Clara and Adina—vulnerable, unwitting, naked—seem to be at the reader’s mercy, and in this way, from the first moment, you have become the fox—a cunning and secretive hunter that stalks its prey from the shadows—an honorary member of the secret police from the novel’s first scene until the end.
The presence of this roving eye is deeply engrained into the villagers’ way of life: The visage of Ceau̧sescu hangs on the walls of Romanian homes and on the front pages of their newspapers, and his dark eyes and distinctive hair penetrate into every crevice:
Everything that shines also sees.
The forelock shines. It peers into the country every day, and it sees. Every day the dictator’s framed image takes up half the table… The black inside the eye stares out of the newspaper every day, peering into the country.
The optic nerve runs deep into the land.Towns and villages are squeezed together in one place, torn apart in another.
Eyes, whether literal or figurative, are everywhere. Once Adina realizes that the Securitate has unfettered access to her apartment, her supposedly safest space, she becomes unmoored, unable to let down her guard for even a moment as her home has become another outlet for the secret police. Every time she enters, she dreads the discovery that yet another piece of the fox rug has been severed. It drives her—a woman who has never gotten drunk—to attempt to buy a bottle of brandy at 7:00 a.m. Early on, while walking home, Adina can feel this overwhelming pressure on an otherwise lovely summer afternoon:
The breath of fear looms in the park, it slows your mind and makes you see your own life in everything others say and do. You never know if a given thought will become a spoken sentence or a knot in your throat. Or merely the flaring of nostrils, in and out.
The breath of fear sharpens your hearing.
Today, the threat of being watched has shifted from totalitarian states to the freest country on Earth, and the means by which the internet has made the entire globe immediate, infinitely accessible, and deeply knowledgeable has also made its users vulnerable. Why do I clear my web browser’s history every few days? If I decide to listen to embarrassingly terrible pop music, why do I make sure to do it only using a “private” browser window? Why am I concerned about my e-mails being read? It seems implicitly understood that any activity on the internet, while certainly not public, is not wholly private, either.
On June 5, 2013, the British newspaper the Guardian ran an unprecedented story on the broadscale and invasive surveillance tactics, used both domestically and abroad, of the US National Security Agency (NSA). Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked the information, did so with the explicit intent of revealing how widespread the American surveillance apparatus had become and how far it had strayed from its original intent to prevent acts of terrorism. As a result of Snowden’s leaks, we learned that the NSA had arrangements with major technology and utility companies to gain nearly unrestricted access to the private information of US citizens and others. (“Collect it all” was the motto—and strategy—of NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, a simple phrase that articulates his obsession with information as power.) Some of the data harvesting seemed to be done for its own sake.
Reading Müller’s novel, it’s impossible to divorce Stasi fear tactics from Snowden’s revelations about the domestic spying apparatus that Alexander oversaw. Digital surveillance has become particularly sinister for its apparent unobtrusive quality—the data is seamlessly copied while it continues on its way—but the fear of vulnerability lives on.
When Snowden leaked his vast archive of top secret NSA documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, they unraveled a governmental secret so tightly held and deeply engrained that at first it seemed a fiction in itself. As Greenwald revealed in the Guardian, the US government had, by secret court order, accessed the metadata of millions of Verizon customers, as well as backdoor search capacities of Google and Facebook, through programs—most notably PRISM and XKEYSCORE—that allowed agents to actively search e-mail or social-media networks of individuals for “comprehensive monitoring.” In doing so, it had transformed what was ostensibly a tool for curbing terrorism into an informational weapon of economic and diplomatic espionage. In his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Greenwald equates the NSA’s goal to “collect it all” with the establishment of a modern panopticon—the theoretical prison where a central guard tower can passively and secretly watch at all times, without the prisoners knowing if or when they are under scrutiny. As Greenwald argues, the NSA was no less ambitious in its programs than the East German Stasi. The effects of both are uncanny in their similarities.
One drawback to Greenwald’s assault on the modern surveillance state is the willingness with which we all engage in these traceable behaviors. For instance, Adina finds herself in constant opposition to her surveillance: She is disgusted by the ever-present face of Ceau̧sescu, she secludes herself from potential informants, and, ultimately, she takes desperate flight to the border. But while the unwarranted collection of phone records is in gross violation of the law, it can sometimes pale in comparison to the amount of information we make available online: Facebook posts, tweets, blog posts, Instagram photos.
This tension between the desire to be seen and unseen is palpable in Fox. Despite the fear of constant observation, female millworkers gather by a secluded window to gossip and spy on the men’s showers in giddy and alluring voyeurism—despite being the likely victims of spying, they cannot help but engage in the act themselves. There’s a certain irony to Müller’s central image of the secret police, the eponymous fox, slowly cutting apart the fox-fur rug—by terrorizing Adina they are also destroying themselves. By the end of the novel, Ceau̧sescu’s regime falls, spelling the certain end for the state’s secret police.
For many of us, the notion of privacy is outdated. As Greenwald quotes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from a 2010 interview, “‘people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.’ Privacy in the digital age is no longer a ‘social norm,’ a notion that handily serves the interests of a tech company trading on personal information.” The easy appeasement offered by this social validation offers something at once delicious and addictive. We’ve all had the experience of sharing good news—a new job, say—on Facebook and spending the rest of that afternoon feeling giddy from all the “likes” and compliments.
As I’ve asked my friends about their internet usage and their own subliminal level of paranoia and browser-history clearing, one thing has felt palpable: While revulsion at the NSA’s spying program seemed universal, there was also a resignation to an unavoidable truth that our information would be available to those motivated and skilled enough to retrieve it. We seem caught between these two desires as social animals. I continually add photos, personal updates, and professional qualifications to my various profiles, all while under the irreconcilable scrutiny of watchers. It involves a certain and constant stress from observation, something that Adina feels all too well: “Then her shoes begin to hurry, her head is empty, even though the fox is lurking inside. The fox is always lurking inside her head.”
What if, instead of a small red padlock on an e-mail, a letter from your mother was delivered ripped open and in a sealed plastic bag that was stamped with “Reviewed by the NSA”? What if, like Adina, you were to come home to an apartment just enough askew—say a stray cigarette butt in the toilet, as Adina finds—for you to know that it was no longer your own personal citadel? After the reporting on Snowden’s NSA leaks, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in June 2015 to curtail the warrantless data collection by the NSA (though one reading of the bill could be that the information now simply resides on the communication companies’ servers instead of the NSA’s, a quick rubber stamp away from their examination—the information is still being harvested in one way or another).
Progress, though, is certainly halting or intermittent at best. In 2014, Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the most robust defenders of the government’s intelligence community and ranking Democrat of the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused the CIA of spying on congressional computers. Earlier this year, the FBI admitted to cracking the encryption on the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, an encryption that Apple claimed it was both unwilling and unable to break without jeopardizing security on all of their phones. In Müller’s Romania, after Ceau̧sescu falls and Adina is able to safely return to her apartment, she goes with her lover, Paul, to finally dispose of the butchered fox-fur rug from a bridge over a nearby river:
And now they’ve cut off the head as well, she says, but the fox is still the hunter. The candle burns. Paul sets the box on the water.
He lets it go.