Technology (2005)

Video surveillance

The BigBrotherAward in the category Technology goes to a number of very eager surveillance fetishists for the creeping degradation of citizens to objects of continual compulsory observation and playing down the consequences of ubiquitous surveillance.
Portraitaufnahme von Karin Schuler.
Karin Schuler, Deutsche Vereinigung für Datenschutz (DVD)

The BigBrotherAward 2005 in the Category "Technology" goes to well, yes, to whom actually? for the creeping degradation of citizens to objects of surveillance and the act of playing down dangerous tendencies towards ubiquitous observation.

Do you sometimes pick your nose when nobody is looking? Do you prefer sleeping in the back rows of an auditorium to listening to boring speeches? Do you sometimes rob petrol stations?

"There won't be anybody coming to look, anyway!" you say? - Well, no, not so fast. Because all kinds of snoopers are looking in on us, in more and more areas of our lives, and we hardly ever notice them. It's just that they don't come to look but hide behind monitors fed by video cameras - a very one-way line of sight in which they don't have to reveal themselves as watchers. The observed is barred from seeing the observer, he transforms into a mere object of surveillance and does not know by whom, when and from what distance and for what purpose, he will be looked at, gazed at, leered at or filmed.

Judges at German courts however bestow a number of quasi-personal rights to anonymous cameras as representatives of governmental powers and institutions. Already in the year 2000, the Bavarian Court of Appeal (Oberlandesgericht) ruled that "flashing the finger" at a camera should be seen as a personal (!) insult to the police officers leering at the monitors, and could be fined. The regional court in the town of Stadtroda wrote an almost identical sequel to this novella in 2004. Does one have to fear soon to be taken to court for insulting a finder, when losing one's wallet with holiday photos showing the naked behinds of people one met on the beach?

In this light the following scenario seems to be only too consistent: Should you be short-sighted and walk past your girl-friend whom you were going to meet at the underground station Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, and then return when she calls after you - well, then you'd better prepare yourself for a small police crowd gathering around you. Or, better, you should plan your rendezvous somewhere else in the first place. Because according to an analysis of typical behavioural patterns this kind of behaviour (walk past, stop, return, and then stand together) is associated with drug dealers - and for that reason will immediately raise the alarm of pattern-recognition software in the future. And if you don't want to change your normal behaviour: the drug dealers for their part will surely be quick about changing theirs. Which is why pattern recognition alone will be no solution in the long run.

"So why not always try out the newest technology, or rather, have it tried out?" Thought the manager of Berlin transport (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, BVG), Mr Thomas Necker. And that is why - perhaps boosted by a little extra advertising revenue - he has turned the complete underground station into a playing ground for makers of surveillance technology. The playthings were installed by grateful companies, and the necessary utensils, namely us, come for free.

Deutsche Bahn, Germany's major railway operator, like Berlin transport and other local transport companies, are also investing in ubiquitous video surveillance in their stations and on their platforms. One has to be almost thankful that in an "Inter City Express" (ICE, Germany's high-speed train) one is not yet under constant observation by a video eye, as is already the highly questionable normality in many busses, trams and railways. But before escaping into the ICE one is under extra-thorough observation. And since nothing is so good that it could not be made even better, the Deutsche Bahn is now planning to install a centralised observation centre in Berlin. Here the home-grown security forces of Deutsche Bahn and the Border Protection Force (Bundesgrenzschutz), now called Federal Police Force (Bundespolizei), shall have access to all video cameras in German railway stations. The proclaimed goal is to fit each and every station with at least one camera linked to the observation centre in Berlin. Apart from the lack of a legal foundation for this construction (there is, e.g., as yet no data protection contract between Deutsche Bahn and the Federal Police Force, as the Berlin Data Protection Commissioner remarked somewhat sourly), one asks oneself what use it could possibly be that someone in Berlin could watch somebody being attacked at a railway station in Munich. But all this is probably nothing to do with petty things like public disorder or rape or bag-snatching, but about the really big threats: terrorism, or at least robberies and murders, which one wants to able to see centrally even if one can't prevent them from such a distance.

At least one thing is perfect about this kind of surveillance: the sweeping registration of significant parts of the lives of many people who have to rely on public transport, like commuters and school children.

One can almost pity the police authorities of a great number of communities who are not able to simply "compute" potential misdemeanours of the people they observe in real time, but still have to evaluate the footage from the growing number of surveillance cameras with their own eyes. The mere placement of such mobile installations all-too often neglects the balance between usefulness and infringement of constitutional rights. As for example in Leipzig, where despite the most obvious futility of video-monitoring of a public square deemed prone to brawls, observation of that place was pushed through even with the help of downright lies, openly uttered before an astonished public. Also in Bielefeld the justification of video-surveillance of a park (Ravensberger Park) was not all too truthful. The Ministry of the Interior of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia claimed a great success and decreased crime rates. The opposite was the case, as FoeBuD found out for the years 2000 and 2001. The number of offences committed in the park even rose from 6 to 9 after cameras were installed in 2000. What didn't fit the picture should obviously be made to fit, however clumsily.

Considering such observation furore from governments one need hardly wonder that private enterprises also want to take advantage of what public institutions are preaching and demonstrating before their very eyes in so many different ways.

"Why should I pay heed to legal prescriptions about notices when governmental surveillance is operating more and more secretly, without the knowledge of the people affected?" is what bookseller Stilke must have thought when he clandestinely installed video cameras in the ceiling of his branch in a Hamburg railway station, in order to "have an eye on" his employees - clearly against the law. And since according to a German motto "attack is the best defence", the employee who had accidentally discovered the camera was fired at short notice, for alleged damage of property (the camera).

Video monitoring has become part of our every day life to such an extent that there seem to be no moral inhibitions left. It hardly occurs to most of the "vidiots" that there even might be legal boundaries that must not be crossed.

Those suffering a wrong or maybe just fearing one are, it seems, readily prepared to take the law into their own hands. Not seldomly these protagonists shoot far beyond the mark and lose sight of any proportion - especially in terms of personality rights of the people affected.

Belonging to this category is the secret video recording and subsequent publication on the internet of shop customers' images by Macintosh retailer GRAVIS. Apparently they didn't want to bother police and the state prosecutor with extra work, so they published secretly taken video recordings of customers on the internet themselves, asking visitors to the website to help with identification. The alleged targets were members of a gang of burglars who systematically broke into GRAVIS stores. As a winner's reward in this "pillory-game" they offered an iPod?

FoeBuD's funny sticker saying: "For reasons of hygiene this toilet is monitored by video!" has been in circulation for several years now. More than a handful of people after reading this notification have cast startled looks at ceilings of "restrooms", looking for live cameras ? But there is no idea absurd enough that it couldn't be topped by reality. Wellness Oase Mediterana in the town of Mönchengladbach are a case in point.

After paying a not really modest entrance fee, one is welcomed - apart from oriental designs, luxurious saunas and soothing muzak - by video cameras in the ceilings of the changing rooms. Not only is the legally required notification missing, there is also no way of finding out who watches all these pictures of naked people - or records them, or maybe even deletes the recordings occasionally. Whether there is some kind of data protection representative also remains one of the sweet secrets of the operator.

Although this sobering collection of outrageous examples is sufficient proof that we really are on our way to ubiquitous video surveillance, we could continue this list for hours on end. We have therefore decided not to point out a single winner in the Technology category of this year's Big Brother Awards. All the others would get the impression that for the moment they had got away with what they are doing.

No. We say our heartfelt congratulations to all of you out there! You are in really bad company!


Portraitaufnahme von Karin Schuler.
Karin Schuler, Deutsche Vereinigung für Datenschutz (DVD)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

Organised by (among others):

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The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.