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Germany

Big Brother on Hamburg's Reeperbahn?

Hamburg wants to install surveillance cameras on the city's red-light drag, the Reeperbahn, to fight violent crime. The plan comes at a time when Germany is mulling expanding existing security measures.

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Violence is raising its head amid the neon sleaze of the Reeperbahn

Better known for its strip joints, bordellos, casinos and smoky watering holes, Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn is also a hotbed of violent crime.

Last year, incidents of bodily harm jumped by 19 percent in the port city's St Pauli district while drug-related crimes were up by 15 percent. Last weekend, a man wielding a knife ended up seriously wounding eight people in a bar in the neighborhood.

Hamburg

The rising crime barometer in the city's district of sleaze and grit -- and at the same time its largest tourist attraction -- has led Hamburg's interior senator, Udo Nagel, to take drastic steps.

This week, Nagel presented a new security concept that involves setting up 12 sophisticated surveillance cameras on the Reeperbahn alone. Starting next year, the city's police will be able to clearly follow events on the strip in real time at a downtown office on a large screen.

"The Reeperbahn is the biggest hub of criminality in Hamburg," Nagel said on Wednesday, adding that between May 2004 and April 2005, police had counted 757 criminal offenses on the Reeperbahn -- more than in all of Hamburg's other neighborhoods. "It's about making the Reeperbahn -- as Hamburg's showpiece -- safer," he added.

Nagel has dismissed fears that tourists, who flock to the Reeperbahn, would be put off by the new security measure.

Nagel pointed out that his administration had identified so-called "private zones" where the video cameras were off-limits. "We're not interested in who's moving out of an apartment," Nagel said.

London bombings trigger security concerns

Nagel's proposal to step up video surveillance in Hamburg isn't a lone one. In the weeks since bombings on London's transport system killed 52 commuters, several European countries have vowed more surveillance of the public sphere in an effort to stamp out criminal and terrorist activity.

Videoüberwachung der öffentlichen Verkehrsmittel

The debate has taken on heightened significance in Germany, which is in the throes of an election campaign as the country goes to the polls on Sept. 18.

Angela Merkel, head of the opposition conservative Christian Democrats and the likely next chancellor, recently spoke out in favor of stepping up video surveillance.

"The Londoners would have never caught their terrorists if they hadn't had video cameras at underground station entrances," Merkel said during a campaign rally. "What's possible in London, should also be possible in Germany," she added.

Two weeks ago, German Interior Minister Otto Schily presented a tightened security concept for the country's train stations which foresees significantly expanding existing video surveillance as well as police presence.

"Video surveillance has proven itself -- not only in the fight against terrorism," Schily said, adding that over 700 criminal offenses had been detected last year thanks to surveillance cameras.

But Hamburg isn't planning to confine its surveillance techniques to the Reeperbahn alone: the interior ministry is already planning to install cameras in at least two further flashpoints in the city.

How effective are "electronic eyes?"

Criminal experts and data protection agencies however are skeptical of the effectiveness of the measures.

"Video surveillance isn't a panacea. Criminality shouldn't just be observed but also prevented," Hartmut Lubomierski, Hamburg's commissioner for data protection told Spiegel Online. Lubomierski added that even a city like London, which has the most dense network of surveillance cameras in Europe, could not be protected from terrorist attacks.

Peter Schaar, Geschäftsführer der Privcom GmbH und designierter Bundesbeauftragter für den Datenschutz

Peter Schaar

Germany's federal commissioner of data protection, Peter Schaar (photo), has argued that visible police presence would be more effective than more cameras.

We don't want people to get the illusion that video surveillance takes care of everything," Schaar told DW-WORLD. "Even if an area is watched by video (that) doesn't mean that crimes aren't possible or that catching criminals is automatic. The visible presence of (security) personnel is more effective than these electronic eyes."

Others have voiced concerns over the financial costs and the sensitive issue of data protection.

"Despite the success of their manhunts, the British have now sobered up because the financial cost of blanket video surveillance is enormous," Christian Pfeiffer of the Criminology Institute of the state of Lower Saxony told Spiegel Online. "Who is going to guarantee that extracts of video surveillance footage won't be shown on private television, as is the case in England?" Pfeiffer said.

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