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Big Brother?

Naomi Conrad / aiDecember 18, 2012

After an attempted bomb attack at Bonn train station, Germany's interior minister has called for more surveillance cameras in public places. But not everyone believes that this is the right way to go.

Surveillance camera (photo: Fotolia/laytatius)
Image: Fotolia/laytatius

There are surveillance cameras at Bonn central station. Yet there are no recordings of what happened last Monday (10.12.2012), no images that would show how a blue bag containing a self-made bomb was placed on one of the platforms - and more importantly, no pictures of who put it there. "You can plaster the entire city of Bonn with cameras but if they don't work then that's good for nothing," Cem Özdemir, chairman of Germany's Green Party told Deutsche Welle.

The cameras in Bonn are run by Germany's national rail operator, but they didn't record the attempted bomb attack last week. The police assume that the perpetrators come from the extremist Salafist scene in Bonn; the investigations are focusing on witness statements and a video from a surveillance camera in a fast food restaurant in the train station. That's led Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich to call for an expansion of video surveillance in public places in Germany.

Private operators

"The police have very few cameras and only for traffic," Reinhold Bergmann, spokesman for the Munich police, told Deutsche Welle. "But we know where there are private operators using cameras we can have access to." Such cooperation is voluntary and depends on the willingness to help of those private operators. And usually these images are only stored for about one week - after which they're deleted.

Bonn train station (photo: Sascha Schuermann/dapd)
There are cameras at the Bonn station - but they were not workingImage: dapd

Bergmann thinks that it does make sense to video major public places. The police would certainly use the cameras if they were there. After all, the images would help to get pictures of suspects and to reconstruct what happened at a crime scene - as was the case with a failed bomb attack at Cologne central station in 2006.

CCTV capital London

But for Charles Farrier the idea of more surveillance cameras is a nightmare he's been fighting for years. Farrier runs the organization No-CCTV. He says that in London for instance a person gets filmed by a Closed Circuit Television camera more than 300 times a day.

No one really knows how many cameras there are in London, Farrier says - according to the police it's around a million. But the actual number isn't that important: "If you invite someone from outside the UK to walk around a major city center, nine times out of ten, they'll be shocked by the number of cameras."

Surveillance camera
In London there are a million cameras scanning the streetsImage: dpa - Fotoreport

Farrier is concerned about his rights: already now, bar and shop owners are exchanging videos to create blacklists of unwelcome customers, which can then be used by the police. And Farrier does not believe that the cameras prevent crimes or help in solving them.

Frank Neubacher of the Institute for Criminology at Cologne University agrees that putting up more cameras in public places "is not a guaranteed recipe to prevent or solve crimes." There are already many cameras in place, he says but violence or crime levels have not been reduced, except in the case of car theft.

'Terrorists act out of conviction'

There are several reasons for that, Neubacher believes: for example, videos are often unusable, especially at night; criminals often simply wear masks so that they can't be recognized; and some crimes are committed in the heat of the moment, and the perpetrators aren't thinking about consequences or cameras.

"In the case of extremism and terrorism," says Neubacher, "the perpetrators act out of conviction - without regard for what consequences the act will have for them, their lives or their freedom." More laws and cameras, Neubacher believes, would not automatically lead to more security. He sees the public as having a more significant role in prevention.

Cooperation with Muslims?

Green politician Cem Özemir agrees. It's well known that there's a radical Islamist Salafist scene in Bonn. But they are a very small minority. "The majority of Muslims despise Salafism and see it as a threat to their way of life," says Özedmir." They don't want to have anything to do with it."

Cem Özdemir (photo: Christian Charisius/dpa)
Özdemir says authorities should work with the Muslim communityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's why, instead of putting up more cameras, the Interior Ministry should rather work with the moderate Muslim majority. After all, they are the ones who are likely to notice things first and alert authorities if, for instance, they see their children becoming radicalized.

In the end, Özdemir believes, people would feel more secure if they could see more police on the streets: "I think there's a big question mark over whether the answer is really to have cameras everywhere."