Terror attacks prompt government to call for new balance between security and anonymity
BY ZEKE TURNER
BERLIN—When a bomb threat targeted the Thier Galerie shopping mall in Dortmund last month, police rushed to the scene and asked to scour closed-circuit camera recordings.
There wasn’t much footage to go through. An attempt by the mall operator to ramp up video surveillance last fall had been vetoed by local authorities who feared an assault on patrons’ privacy. “You can’t just say you want to have more cameras,” said Heike Marzen, the mall’s manager. “There are certain laws we have to follow.”
Branded by its dictatorial past, when surveillance was both dreaded and commonplace, Germany has some of the world’s toughest privacy laws. But after two attacks claimed by Islamic State and a mass shooting this summer, the government is pushing to recalibrate the balance between security and anonymity.
This month, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière introduced a raft of security proposals. Seizing on the case of the Dortmund mall, he made it clear many of these would require a change of mentality.
The threat there, he said, “could have been cleared up with video recordings if they hadn’t been forbidden by privacy champions.” Authorities could have quickly scanned feeds from the whole building to see if anything was planted. Instead police had to search the mall with dogs. They didn’t find a bomb and determined the threat to be a hoax.
Mr. de Maizière is proposing to add cutting-edge video surveillance in some 20 rail stations across the country and intensify monitoring of the internet. Many regional govern- ments and large cities, meanwhile, are discussing video surveillance of highly frequented areas, an almost nonexistent practice in much of the country.
Opponents of the plans say they run afoul of Germany’s constitution and decades of legal precedents that have enshrined privacy among Germans’ most heavily guarded rights. Many fear such surveil- lance will curtail rights without stopping crime, while giving the state too much power.
German authorities and businesses don’t have broad leeway to use cameras, and specific plans must be approved by a special commissioner in each state.
“I don’t want a state that has a complete surveillance system,” said Christopher Lauer, a Berlin state lawmaker with the libertarian Pirate Party who is fighting plans to add cameras in Alexanderplatz, a transport hub and crime hot spot in the center of the capital. “If there are ever darker times in Germany, then the state could just use this against the people.”
In France, a state of emergency in place since November’s Paris terror attacks gives security forces carte blanche to hunt terrorists, and in the U.S. intelligence gathering engenders relatively little controversy. Germany, however, has resisted anything seen as remotely reminiscent of the surveillance that took place under its Nazi and Communist dictatorships.
But the price of privacy has become obvious as terror and crime threats have grown.
When a disgruntled teenager went on a shooting rampage in Munich last month, police had to ask residents to upload smartphone videos of the attack to their servers.
In Cologne, authorities have struggled to prosecute a wave of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve partly because of the limited video footage from the city’s main square, where most of the attacks took place.
Investigators say video cameras often enable arrests that otherwise wouldn’t happen. In the U.K., with its long history of terror attacks and almost five million security cameras, security footage helped in identifying and arresting terrorists involved in the 2005 bombings on the public transport system.
“If there are cameras, then all of a sudden, we have the beginnings of an investigation,” said Martin Steltner, a senior prosecutor in Berlin.
Speaking outside Berlin on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the importance of video surveillance and data collection.
“Until now in Germany the idea of ‘as little data as possible’ has dominated,” Ms. Merkel said. “That absolutely doesn’t fit anymore with the digital age.”
People leaving the Olympia mall in Munich in July after gunfire erupted. A lone gunman killed nine people before killing himself.
SEBASTIAN WIDMANN/ASSOCIATED PRESS