Politics (2011)

Uwe Schünemann

The BigBrotherAward 2011 in the “Politics” Category goes to The Interior Minister of the federal state of Lower Saxony, Uwe Schünemann (CDU, Germany’s conservative party), for the first proven instance of German police using a miniature surveillance drone at a political gathering. During demonstrations and protest events against the transport of nuclear waste in the Wendland region in November 2010, there have been four instances of “flying eyes” covertly spying on and controlling demonstrators from the air. Such airborne surveillance is highly disputed in legal circles – it can violate personality rights of the affected persons, and it can have highly intimidating and deterring effects on participants of a public gathering.
Portraitaufnahme von Rolf Gössner.
Dr. Rolf Gössner, Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte (ILFM)

The BigBrotherAward in the “Politics” category goes to The Interior Minister of Lower Saxony, Uwe Schünemann (CDU, Germany’s conservative party), for the first proven instance of German police using a miniature surveillance drone to secretly spy on demonstrations and protest events against the transport of nuclear waste in the Wendland region (in eastern Lower Saxony, this region contains Germany’s main nuclear waste disposal facilities at Gorleben, including explorations for a deep final repository). Affected were countless demonstration participants who in November 2010 protested in their thousands against radioactive waste and the irresponsible nuclear policy of the German government.

1. They are small, silent and unobtrusive – and they’re not just used for military purposes. Not just for the deadly hunt for Taliban and terrorists far away in the Hindu Kush, but also in “civilian” missions including police surveillance at home in the Wendland. Almost unnoticed, not much louder than a swarm of houseflies, the unmanned and remote-controlled flying object hovered above demonstrators’ heads in November 2010, and unnoticed, the remote-controllable cameras filmed what went on before their lenses. The pin-sharp images of the protests were radioed to and recorded by police on the ground, who were then able to evaluate the footage.

The intention of Schünemann’s “flying eye” was to spy on the mass protests in secret. Such use of police drones at demonstrations is highly disputed in legal circles, not least because of the intimidating and deterring effects this can have on people taking part in public gatherings. With his “Big Brother of the air”, the minister has covertly added to the many restrictions to the freedom of assembly, and further undermined an elementary basic right that is under serious threat already.

The citizens’ initiative Lüchow-Dannenberg (the district of L.-D. is roughly identical to the Wendland region) objected against the use of this new surveillance technology, on the grounds that it violated personality rights of the affected people and also the constitutional principle of proportionality. It seems that the drone operations in the Wendland were so secret that a legal review by the state’s Data Protection Commissioner had not taken place and even the police officer in charge had not been informed in time.

The Interior Minister at first said that what had been made were harmless panoramic images of the protest scene. But this claim contradicts police statements that the footage was also used to secure evidence and investigate criminal acts after the event. For this purpose, image details must have been enlarged so that faces could be identified – technologically, this is easily possible. However, personality rights of the people concerned are violated in this way.

2. Although the use of police drones can thus lead to violations of personality rights and of the freedom of assembly, there are no explicit or specific legal regulations for it up to now. Conventional video surveillance of public gatherings on a large scale has been regular police practice for long. But the Federal Constitutional Court has now decided that an overall recording of such events without specific cause is an illegitimate intrusion on the basic right of freedom of assembly (case reference 1 R 2492/08). And the Administrative Court of Berlin ruled in 2010 that monitoring a demonstration by video is unlawful even with the existence of a concrete case (reference VG 1 K 905.09). Capturing just panoramic views for planning police action was deemed inadmissible as well, because targetting and zooming in on individual people would always be possible. The video monitoring could lead to participants being “intimated by the feeling of being observed”, or even deterred from participating. “This would damage not only the free development of the individual, but also the public interest.” The Higher Administrative Court of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia came to the same conclusion in a similar case (ruling of 23 Nov 2010, reference OVG Münster 5 A 228/09).

These rulings must of course apply to the monitoring of public gatherings through police drones as well – but they were ignored in the Wendland. If people know of such airborne espionage, they can be severely deterred from exercising their right to freedom of assembly.

3. The type of police drone used in the Wendland was the MD4 200 by Microdrones, a company based in Kreuztal. The Interior Ministry of Lower Saxony had procured this flying device in late 2008 at a cost of about 50,000 €. It can take off vertically, is just over 600g in weight and about 90cm in length, and it features four electrically driven low-noise rotors. Also called quadrocopter or gyroplane, it can carry cameras for daylight, dusk, or infrared imaging up to a 200g load. It can be controlled remotely or fly pre programmed or autonomously using GPS.

Unmanned aviation devices have become much more important in the last few years, after a “drones” project group between police forces at the federal and the state level started work in 2007. Federal Police and police forces in the states of Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony are increasingly using police drones in “live” operations as well – for example to identify hooligans and violent criminals at football games. Also, at least one police drone was sighted at demonstrations and blockades against a Neonazi march in Dresden (in Saxony) in February 2011.

Interior Minister Schünemann and police forces across Germany see wide potentials for the use of mini-drones: at large rallies, for traffic control, kidnappings and hostage takings, to pursue robbers, search for missing persons, to secure evidence and to direct police operations, investigate environmental or drug offences, monitor railway facilities or borders, respond to catastrophic events, etc. It would also be possible to equip the drones with smoke-balls, pepper spray, tear gas or tasers; and one could imagine entire drone squadrons that control public events or urban districts automatically, guided by intelligent software, and follow suspect groups or persons. There is intense work on such projects, anyway.

According to the EU surveillance and research project INDECT, for example, police on the beat could take hand-held drones along – to find suspect persons and pursue them. These drones would feature high-resolution cameras that could observe the suspects automatically, using face-recognition software, and supply all information required for a seizure or arrest; at the same time, evidence for a subsequent trial could be secured. Such mobile surveillance systems are also being developed to combat uprisings in urban areas1. During the European football championships in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, some INDECT systems will be tested under “real-life” conditions for the task of monitoring sports arenas. Among the goals are identification of hooligans and early recognition of conspicuous behaviour – e.g. by recording football chants and scanning them for threatening voice patterns2. In a research project by Frontex, the EU agency for external border security, drones are being developed specifically to monitor borders and “combat terrorism”3.

4. Interior Minister Schünemann is a “repeat offender”. He was already “penalised” with a BigBrotherAward in 2003 – for enabling preventive telecommunications monitoring in Lower Saxony’s police law, among other issues. He had to share that award, unlike this one today, with his colleague Interior Ministers in Bavaria, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Thuringia. As he played truant at the awards ceremony and shunned the artistic prize trophy, I used an opportunity three years later to re stage the procedure in front of a larger audience. It happened during a TV appointment in the morning show at Sat.1 (one of Germany’s larger private TV channels). Invited as breakfast studio guests were Schünemann, the head of the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) Jörg Ziercke, and myself. I had secretly planned the raid on Schünemann with the studio directors. Just before the end of the show, I conjured up a framed photo of the award and gave a short award speech to castigate Schünemann’s preventive surveillance, which by then had been ruled to be unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court. Instinctively, almost ceremoniously, Schünemann stood up, accepted the photo, politely said “thank you” as the cameras were running, and left the studio, red-faced.

Uwe Schünemann has not heeded the warning he received with that negative award, or with the Constitutional Court ruling that declared preventive telecommunications surveillance to be unconstitutional (reference 1 BvR 668/04) – instead, he has continued to commit further civil rights and data violations. The “conviction offender in security politics”, as former Data Protection Commissioner of Lower Saxony Burckhard Nedden has labelled him, is merciless in deporting illegal migrants, pushes for expanded CCTV surveillance, calls for electronic tagging of “dangerous foreigners” and “violence-prone islamists” without prior judicial approval, as well as secret searches of homes, Internet censorship against child and youth pornography and a renewal of the overall retention of all telecommunications data independent of suspicion.

That is why the unrepentant Interior Minister deserves to feel the full and undivided impact of the BigBrotherAward for his debut of police drones in the Wendland. Congratulations, Mr Schünemann.



Portraitaufnahme von Rolf Gössner.
Dr. Rolf Gössner, Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte (ILFM)

1 spiegel.de: Among others (Web-Archive-Link)

2 www.heute.de/ZDFheute/inhalt/20/0,3672,8144084,00.html [Content no longer available]

3 ag-friedensforschung.de: Drohnen für die Heimatfront (Web-Archive-Link)

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