Germans divided on the effectiveness of CCTV cameras in crime prevention, even as its govt pushes forth video surveillance measures

It was just another weekday in Berlin and I was headed back to my accommodation, via the S-Bahn. While waiting for my train, I saw a lady on the opposite platform, almost posing like a statue. She had a bottle of beer in her right hand and it was raised upwards, an almost ballerina like pose. She held that pose for close to five minutes. Most people on my side of the platform were amused. On closer observation, I noticed that she was standing right opposite a CCTV camera, in a way that the field of view of the CCTV camera could only see the top of that beer bottle.

I didn’t think much about it, and brushed it aside as someone high on alcohol, doing something erratic.

CCTV cameras. Image: Getty

CCTV cameras. Image: Getty

But on discussing later with some German friends, I learned that this is a form of protest in Berlin against the use of the increasing number of video surveillance cameras in public spaces.

Coming from Mumbai, which recently installed a network of over 5000 CCTV cameras across the city, to beef up security and help the police force, I found it strange that Germans, who had faced terror attacks in the recent past, would have objections to video surveillance. In India, we have accepted the fact that video surveillance in public spaces will be on the rise. 

And it’s not just crime prevention. More recently in Mumbai, when the rains lashed across the city on 29 August, CCTV cameras were instrumental in helping the BMC to spot areas where help was most needed and deploy its resources.

In Germany though, there is no straightforward answer to this

The protests against video surveillance cameras in public spaces in Germany, aren’t just happening in the capital. Seeing this different narrative in Berlin on the aspects of video surveillance piqued my curiosity. 

In Hamburg, a movement called Juvenal is creating a database of all the CCTV cameras in public spaces using crowdsourcing. “The many headed Hydra has us all in its eyes,” says the home page, comparing the video surveillance system to the many headed hydra. So far according to Juvenal’s Twitter handle, they’ve managed to locate 232 cameras and the numbers are increasing by the day.

A little more digging revealed that video surveillance in public spaces isn’t really appreciated in Germany. For instance, Berlin has close to 15,000 CCTV cameras, which pales in comparison to over 420,000 in London.

There was even an underground movement in 2013, where citizens had carried out demonstrations against increase in video surveillance. Back then, this protest was gamified, Grand Theft Auto-style. A real-life game called Camover was being played out in parts of Germany and even other parts of Europe, where vandalising a CCTV camera in a public space, recording the footage and uploading it on a website earned you points, even though there was no grand prize for the topper. The more creative you were, the more bonus points you collected.

The Camover blog had reports of CCTV cameras being disabled and destroyed in Magdeburg, Nürnberg, Berlin, Frankfurt, to even other countries such as Finland, Belgium and so on. The game lasted till 19 February 2013, when the European Police Congress was to be held in Berlin.  

The specter of Stasi

The reservation against state-sponsored surveillance in Germany has to be understood in the context of its history. East Germany, with its all-pervading intelligence unit Staatssicherheit aka Stasi, was the world’s most diabolical Orwellian state. With a combined force of around 91,000 full time employees and over 190,000 ‘unofficial helpers’ (and by some estimates, close to 2 million informers at its peak, both official as well as non-official informers), spying on the 17 million residents with files on around six million residents in its archives at one point, East Germany had reached the epitome of a “Surveillance State”.

The propoganda mural used by the DDR is still present on the Federal Ministry of Finance building, which was the former DDR headquarters Image Source: Federal Ministry of Finance, Jörg Rüger

The propoganda mural used by the DDR is still present on the Federal Ministry of Finance building, which was the former DDR headquarters Image Source: Federal Ministry of Finance, Jörg Rüger

Citizens who lived in divided Germany, on the communist side of the fence, lived under the most toxic forms of surveillance where sometimes your own family and friends could be spying on you and reporting back to the Stasi. Things were so bad, that post-unification, a lot of the families did not want to get their personal files — which had details about what kind of information the Stasi collected on them. Just because some families were not prepared to face the identity of the non-Stasi spies, which could very well be someone quite close to them.

If one looks at surveillance through that lens, it is no wonder that German citizens are cynical when the state decides to increase public surveillance. It’s also one of the reasons why data protection laws in Germany are considered to be the strongest in the world today.

What the government says

Last year saw a lot of violent attacks on German soil. On 18 July a refugee attacked passengers on a train with an axe and a knife before the police shot him. On 22 July a German teenager shot dead nine people in Munich before killing himself. On 24 July, there were cases of a refugee killing a woman with a machete and another refugee blowing himself up. The most recent terror attack took place on 19 December, here in Berlin, when a lorry driver ran wild inside a Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz, killing 12 people and wounding 48.

The last couple of years, countries surrounding Germany such as France and Belgium have seen terror attacks as well. Keeping this background in mind, the German government announced some drastic measures to beef up security.

Earlier this year, the government passed a resolution to allow the Polizei (the German Federal police force) to use bodycams as well as automatic car plate readers.

Berlin Südkreuz station is a crucible for testing out Smart City projects. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

Berlin Südkreuz station is a crucible for testing out Smart City projects. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

More recently, at a Berlin station which is a crucible of smart city initiatives — the Berlin Südkreuz Bahnhof — pilot testing of surveillance cameras with biometric facial recognition capabilities has begun. In this six-month pilot project, around 300 volunteers have decided to participate to help out. The testing will involve comparing the faces captured by the surveillance cameras and comparing them with the ones in the police databases, to help weed out people who ‘pose or could pose a danger’. According to the Deutsche Welle, “The police justify the test as part of fighting terror and criminality. They hope the new technology will enable them to detect and avoid crimes and dangerous situations in advance.”

This has obviously caused data protection activists to protest the move as they are calling it unlawful, if it is applied to all citizens.

“Furthermore, there will be new rules pertaining to the recording of phone conversations in areas where there has been an incident. We want to legally reshape the powers of the Federal police and fill all existing security gaps. We are taking these measures in the interest of the citizens and to ensure their safety,” said Steffen Siebert, the German government spokesperson.

According to a release on the German government website, “The Federal Government has therefore adapted the rules for video surveillance in the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz (Federal Data Protection Act). The protection of life, health or freedom of people should be regarded as a "particularly important interest" in video surveillance by private operators in publicly accessible areas.”

While the government has not made it mandatory for public operators, facilities and vehicles to use video surveillance, it states that, “From the federal government's point of view, however, it would be desirable to make greater use of this possibility. The law is intended to make it easier for operators to make a decision to contribute to the safety of the users of their facilities, both in their own and in the public interest.” This means that the state will not be installing the cameras, but it will be the private bodies.

“It is indeed a complicated judicial construction. So the operator of a shopping center wants to widen the video surveillance to fight shoplifters or pickpockets, and to improve the security in his or her center in general. Then the data protection supervisory body has to examine, if the achieved goals are in balance with the individual rights of the affected citizens. The new law makes it more difficult for the supervisory body not to approve a widened video surveillance,” said a representative of the left party, Die Linke.

It will also be the job of the data protection supervisory body to set the time limit on how long the videos can be stored — between 24-48 hours.

As you enter the Berlin underground metro, you come across this video surveillance sign. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

As you enter the Berlin underground metro, you come across this video surveillance sign, that you are being watched. Image: tech2/Nimish Sawant

Most recently, Hessen’s Home Secretary Peter Beuth from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) called for an increased and stronger public video surveillance measures, said Welt. According to him, video surveillance had brought down the instances of crime on Frankfurt’s streets. Beuth also said that cameras themselves don’t bring down the crimes, but they certainly help in identifying criminals.

While Die Linke claims that a lot of polls have shown that German citizens appreciate video surveillance in public spaces, there is more to it. “This argument doesn’t just affect the debate about video surveillance, but mass storage of telecommunication data, passenger name records, etc.” said the representative.

Data privacy activists are not buying the government spiel

While the government may have noble means to achieve an objective of stopping terror-related attacks on German soil, data privacy activists are not really sold on the idea that more video surveillance will reduce terror attacks in any way.

Padeluun, one of the co-founders of Digital Courage, a German privacy and digital rights organisation, says the demand for more video surveillance is just a smoke screen. The only place it is effective is in preventing cars from being vandalised in a parking garage, he says.  

“Even the politicians know that it is not effective. But it’s an easy way to try and calm down the populace without addressing the problem at the root. Scientifically, there is little proof that increased video surveillance reduces terror-related crime,” says Padeluun.

Cory Doctorow, advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, activist and science fiction author, wrote in his Guardian column, “The idea that we can all be made to behave if only we are watched closely enough all the time is bunkum. We behave ourselves because of our social contract, the collection of written and unwritten rules that bind us together by instilling us with internal surveillance in the form of conscience and aspiration.”

There is no empirical evidence which says that increase in number of CCTV cameras has reduced crimes in places. According to this BBC report, in certain parts of the UK, despite cutting down on installed CCTV cameras, there wasn’t any major increase in the crime rate.

And it is not just the data privacy activists. Recently, in his media address, the leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) Christian Lindner tore into the video surveillance and data retention measures of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is the current ruling party. According to Deutsche Welle, FDP presented a ‘poison list’ of 17 recent legislations and policies that the government had recently announced which compromised on personal freedom.  

"We're not going to tolerate any unconstitutional laws in a coalition," said Lindner, as he put forth these conditions as pre-requisites for forming a coalition with the CDU.

Recently there were two incidents in Berlin’s underground metro stations: a drunk person kicked a woman on her back while she was on the stairs and another incident where a bunch of youngsters tried to light up a homeless man. In both these cases, the CCTV footage helped nab the perpetrators in Berlin and they are facing criminal charges and have been sentenced. These cases though not terror-related, add impetus to the government’s resolve to increase surveillance.

According to Padeluun there are exceptions, but having an entire city under surveillance will not help catch the criminals always. “Just using video surveillance to predict any wrongdoing and arresting the perpetrators after the fact, is not possible. Also, most of the cameras are fixed in one location, so there can be blind spots or areas which are not well lit which will not be effectively captured on the camera. What then? It is very difficult to understand an on-ground situation using just video surveillance,” he said.

Even in terms of retention of this footage, there isn’t any clarity. Some like the Berlin transportation network BVG keep the footage for 72 hours before deleting it. Others may keep it longer. Padeluun fears that the surveillance using these “optical weapons” will just increase over time.

The protest carries on…

Padeluun concludes that were he a young person, he would go around destroying these cameras. “German citizens are just too nice,” he laughs.

According to Die Linke, the citizen still has the power to approach the authorities if he or she isn’t happy with a CCTV camera being in a particular public place. “A regular German citizen can at first ask the data protection supervisory body, if some CCTV is allowed at a place where it was spotted. Then he or she can get to the administrative court, appealing against the decision of the supervisory body that approved it. Then he or she will have to argue, why the judgement in favor of the CCTV was not correct.” said Die Linke’s representative.

While it seems unlikely that the government will back off from its resolution of increasing video surveillance, data privacy groups are also not giving in to this. Right now it seems like a Mexican standoff.

Only time will tell who will be the last man standing.

The correspondent was in Germany as part of Robert Bosch Foundation's India-Germany Media Ambassadors 2017 program

Published Date: Sep 24, 2017 13:06 PM | Updated Date: Sep 24, 2017 13:06 PM