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Germany

Is video surveillance an answer to crime?

A young man was beaten to death on Berlin's Alexanderplatz. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich is intent on preventing such crimes with video surveillance, despite doubts and warnings from critics.

How many surveillance cameras there are in Germany, no one knows exactly. Closed-circuit television cameras supply images of public squares, streets, railway stations, and sometimes swimming pools, museums and schools. Added to these are cameras on publicly accessible private property, such as supermarkets. Privacy advocates think this is enough supervision.

Celebrants on Germany's national holiday (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

Getting lost in the crowd is no longer an option

Among them is Johannes Caspar, Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information. He is skeptical of German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich's assertion, made in response to a brutal murder on Berlin's Alexanderplatz, that more cameras could contribute to a reduction in crime.

"The deterrent effect is minimal, especially for violent criminals," Caspar said, adding that these people often act on impulse and are frequently intoxicated. While video surveillance can help solve crimes and identify criminals, it should not mean that all public places be "plastered" with cameras, he said.

Police, not cameras

More effective, Caspar said, would be an increased police presence. Here, he is in agreement with the German Police Officers' Union (GdP), which on Monday (22.10.2012) used the opportunity to also refer once again to the shortage of law-enforcement personnel.

Rear view of an armed police officer (wellphoto)

Privacy advocates believe more police, not cameras, are the answer to crime

Manfred Bornewasser of the University of Greifswald has researched this issue, and believes this is an important point. In the past year, he analyzed a video surveillance project in the city of Luxembourg and found that monitoring only deters criminals if they had the feeling that the police would notice their activity immediately and that an arrest would directly follow. If an offender knew for certain that he could expect to be arrested, "it would have a strong deterrent effect," Bornewasser said.

But this applies only to certain types of offenses - namely those requiring some preparation. While this might do a good job of slashing the number of planned bicycle thefts, it would have little effect on excessive violence committed in the heat of the moment.

Bornewasser has limited sympathy for the reservations expressed by privacy advocates. If surveillance causes people to behave differently, or avoid monitored areas, this effect is, if anything, barely perceptible. On the other hand, Caspar sees this as an important point for privacy advocates: it would create pressure to conform. He said he fears that "this may mean that people no longer act freely and without inhibition."

A step towards a police state?

A particularly "frightening scenario" for Caspar is that intensive monitoring will allow movement profiles of people. But Bornewasser also views this scenario as unrealistic. Creating such profiles would be an extremely complicated task. The police lack the personnel to do this, he said.

In Britain, there is not only a far more comprehensive video surveillance system in place than in Germany, but it goes even further. In early October, The Independent reported that new, high-resolution cameras are to be installed in British cities. They should be able to make out individual faces in a crowd, even from a great distance. The paper says newly appointed Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Andrew Rennison,  sees a "Big Brother" scenario developing in his country.

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