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Germany Toys With New Big Brother Technology

While Germany’s toll system for heavy trucks flounders, a new Big Brother for the country’s roads is already in the planning: a surveillance system of cameras installed at important traffic junctions to track criminals.


Video monitoring could become a reality on German roads.

German security experts are experimenting with a new tool that might facilitate their work in hunting down wanted criminals and car thieves. A security concept, presented at the conference of German interior ministers this past summer and kept under wraps until recently leaked to the press, details how surveillance technology could help monitor Germany’s roads by scanning the license plates of all cars driving by.

The information would be processed and fed into a specially-designed computer that would compare the information with the central criminal database at the Federal Investigation Agency (BKA) in Wiesbaden and thus help trace stolen cars and wanted criminals.

Security experts from Germany’s 16 states as well as from the federal government are said to have shown interest in the new technology. A few states such as Bavaria and Hesse are allegedly already working on implementing the concept within their state security structures and even experts at the German Border Protection Force are reported to be confident that the new technology would assist in the search for criminals.

The nuts and bolts

The monitoring technology is fairly simple. Video cameras installed at central traffic intersections, in tunnels and on the highways all over Germany would permanently film the license plates of all cars driving by. The images are then digitalized for the computer to read the license numbers.

The computer would be programmed to issue an alarm when it finds a match between one of the cars’ license numbers and that of one listed in the central criminal database. It then indicates if a number plate is forged, a car is registered as "stolen" or if the car driver is on a "wanted list." A police patrol would then just need to follow the offender and stop the car.

Successful precedents to go by

The new hi-tech security technology coincides with the German government’s much-touted plans to roll out a new toll collecting system on German highways for heavy commercial vehicles. The system, the world’s first to use satellite technology to record highway mileage logged by trucks and charge fares automatically, however, has run into embarrassing technical and financial glitches, thus delaying the launch by a whole year.

But unlike the state of the art toll collect system, experts have ample proof that the new monitoring technology works. In London, all entry and exit points in the city are scrutinized with the help of video cameras within the framework of the new traffic congestion fee.

Hamburg Police Chief Udo Nagel, who paid a visit to the Metropolitan Police in London in early November told news magazine Spiegel that the result was "very convincing." He said his counterparts in London didn’t miss a single suspicious vehicle thanks to the new technology.

In Italy the monitoring system is currently in use, and in Switzerland authorities deployed the technology in 2001. A video camera monitors the Sihlquai street in central Zurich and scans around 10,000 license plates a day.

Data security a controversial issue

Despite the proven efficiency of the monitoring system, it still remains unclear when the new technology will be installed in Germany.

An overriding problem remains the question of data privacy laws, an issue that all legislative assemblies in Germany’s 16 federal states will have to grapple with before giving the go-ahead for the technology. Though Germany’s criminal code generally allows the use of technology for hunting down criminals and in so-called danger prevention measures such as the observation of terror suspects, the blanket monitoring that the new technology entails remains a controversial issue as normal citizens would also be scanned by the cameras.

Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, Peter Schaar said he didn’t believe the new security plans had a sufficient legal basis. "The existing criminal code isn’t enough for it," Schaar said in an interview with Berlin daily Tagesspiegel. "Such measures are only allowed in individual cases where there’s a concrete suspicion of crime."

Although he said he "didn’t see an excessive violation" of citizens’ rights if license plates, that weren’t on a "wanted criminal list," were immediately erased, Schaar added, "I still remain deeply skeptical of it."

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