Look Into the Camera!

Authorities claim surveillance in public places assures safety or the population - but does it really?

Imagine you are sitting on the U-Bahn in Vienna. It’s lunchtime and there are not too many people on the train. Two cyclists are having a loud chat, talking about the Tour de France and not noticing that their bikes are blocking the way. They don’t even see the elderly woman hovering nearby, complaining.

You look around and your eyes meet someone else’s. Sometimes people, like one blond woman in her twenties, start the well-known battle called “The first one who looks away is a chicken.” You lose this time because you notice a young man trying to carry a huge red armchair from the platform onto the train. He manages with the help of another man who has seen him struggling and obviously felt sorry. “I wish I had a car,” says the man with the chair and wipes the sweat off his forehead.

You observe so much when you are on the U-Bahn, funny, obscure or scary moments.

But what you may never have noticed are the round, black cameras, now in almost every station and on the ceiling of every new train in the Vienna subway system.

Within the last ten years, surveillance has become more and more controversial. In 2005, the Interior Ministry began installing cameras all over the city of Vienna in the interest of public safety. The first public place provided with CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras, was Karlsplatz. Schwedenplatz, Westbahnhof, the Vienna International Airport and Donaukanal followed. The Museumsquartier in the 7th district, for example, is equipped with 29 surveillance cameras.

The keyword is safety. And not only the Interior Ministry guarantees it. The Wiener Linien operates with two different methods of using surveillance cameras. One is the “Live surveillance”, which exists since the Vienna subway was built in the 1970s. This footage is transmitted to monitors in the Stationsaufsicht, the supervisory of the station, or a neighboring station. Some of it can also be seen at the headquarters of the Wiener Linien.

“It’s about keeping watch over the stations and being able to act in emergencies,” says Dominik Gries of the Wiener Linien.

Since April 2007, more and more stations have been equipped with surveillance cameras, which keep a log of the activity at each site. The recordings are deleted after 48 hours and can be requested by the police only.

The cameras on the U-Bahn trains don’t provide live pictures, however, the quality is high and criminals can easily be identified. “About 70 percent of delinquents can be traced with the help of the video surveillance,” explains Gries. “Only a few days ago, an attempted rape in Stadtpark could be solved because pictures of the offender on the U-Bahn were published.”

All in all, about 1,200 surveillance cameras are in use in U-Bahn trains and stations.

The Wiener Linien are planning to expand the use of cameras in all their means of transportation. All the installations are approved by the Datenschutzkommission, the Austrian Data Protection Commission.

“Recorded videos are codified, saved and released only on demand by the police,” Gries assures. “Only few people of the Wiener Linien are entrusted with the material.”

Even though the Austrian Data Protection Commission is in charge of permitting cameras in public places, they can’t say exactly how many devices have been installed in Vienna.  “Many of the cameras are not registered,” was the answer I received from one of the staff.

Cameras convey a feeling of safety. But do they deliver it in reality? They certainly seem to induce adjustments in behavior: Cameras enforce norms on you; you stick to rules that don’t even exist, but you think whatever you do might be wrong and against the law. Your behavior changes subliminally.

Imagine there were cameras everywhere you went, filming every move of yours, picking your nose “secretly” while you’re waiting for the train or scratching a delicate spot of your body. You begin to feel uncomfortable because you know someone’s watching you all the time. The United Kingdom is the country of surveillance since the terror of the IRA in the 1970s. “There are up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – about one  for every 14 people,” reports BBC News.

In Austria, we are far from this point. The annual report for 2009 of the Datenschutzkommission, however, shows that 803 cameras were registered; almost three times as much as in 2008, with 279 new installed devices.

The cameras are there, even though the majority of the people aren’t aware of them.

“I haven’t even noticed them,” was the usual comment from people on the U-Bahn. They seem to feel neither safer nor more intimidated by the semispherical black cameras on the ceiling.

“Those cameras are everything but a deterrent,” said a young man, dressed in black, “most of the people don’t even know that they are in fact cameras.” A surprised elderly woman heard our conversation, looked at the ceiling and then at me, “I thought they were emergency lights.”

Adrian Dabrowski, head of the Austrian civil rights organization Quintessenz is more than aware of the issue.

“We don’t live in a world of total surveillance but we are well on the way to becoming one,” he said in 2006 in a documentation of the Franco-German TV network ARTE. “Civilians are seen as a threat, as suspects. What we need to do is raise awareness of the problem.”

Quintessenz is co-organizer of the annual Big Brother Awards, which call attention to public authorities, companies and individuals, dealing with surveillance and control. The Wiener Linien were “honored” with the award in 2005. Former Interior ministers Günther Platter and Elisabeth Prokop, both from the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), as well as former Governor of Corinthia Jörg Haider are few of many awardees.

This year’s nominees are among others Austria’s Interior Minister Maria Fekter (ÖVP) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

By law, the footage in stations and trains in Vienna can only be watched in situations where it helps the police to convict somebody of a crime. Unfortunately the access can be abused, as Dabrowski and his colleague Martin Slunsky found out in 2005 when they managed to hack into a camera at Schwedenplatz.

“When there was nothing going on, the policemen looked through the window of the people living there,” Dabrowski told Der Spiegel.

In case of Vienna International School teacher Mike Brennan, who was mistaken for a drug dealer by two police officers in 2008 and was severely injured, cameras could have been of help to ensure justice. “There was a camera looking right down at me,” Brennan told The Vienna Review in March 2009. The teacher’s friends asked for the recordings on the same day the event had happened and were told that the footage is stored for 48 hours. The next day, Brennan requested the tapes at the police station. He has never seen the tapes – the case has still not been solved.

Austria’s Green Party too has reservations about surveillance. Peter Pilz, Member of Parliament, and Marie Ringler, member of the Green Party in Vienna, have set up a website, www.ueberwachungsstaat.at, monitoring surveillance in Austria.

“When you fall victim to a pickpocket,” a message on the webpage states, “the Wiener Linien will tell you that looking at the footage would be too expensive. If it’s a ‘qualified offense against property’ like robbery or gang crime, they will look at the film material – that has happened 32 times so far.”

Most people tend to overlook the limits of the camera’s power. Among other things, they don’t have the ability to interfere and to prevent crimes as they are happening. And even if a criminal is caught, it may be little comfort to a victim who is condemned to stay in the hospital for two weeks to recover.

And in some cases, all that changes is the scene of the crime. When Günther Platter, Interior Minister in the years 2007-2008 and now Governor of Tirol, announced that the crime rate at Schwedenplatz decreased by 68 percent following installation of the surveillance cameras, statistics showed an isolated example. The crime report for 2007 shows an overall drop of 1.79 percent over 2006.

The debate has not ended as to whether or not surveillance cameras reduce crime. However, surveillance is becoming pervasive.

History shows that new technologies, once developed, are seldom abandoned. “Now the right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life – the right to be let alone,” wrote attorney Samuel Warren in the Harvard Law Review.

So what is left to say? Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.

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