"As in prison. . . ."

Camera surveillance at the university

Humboldt University in Berlin has a dubious distinction. It is the university with the most sophisticated surveillance technology in Germany. Twelve surveillance systems, each equipped with three cameras, watch the campus round the clock. The whole thing cost the University approximately 150,000 deutsch marks [trans: approximately $110,000]. In a dozen different computer rooms, four different lecture rooms and one picture gallery, the students are also amateur actors in University videotapes. Cameras left over from the days of the German Democratic Republic are being put to use. According to Andre Kuhring, Humboldt University's Data Protection Commissioner, the video surveillance of students is done with the best of intentions. Those in Asta see things differently; they are amazed at Kuhring's statement. And in the student parliament, there is a big majority against the cameras; even the pro-Christian Democrat RCDS has come out against the surveillance, as did Gunnar Zerowsky, a member of Parliament.

It isn't only in Berlin that potential criminals are confronted with generalized surveillance. "At the University of Leipzig," says one student, "you feel like you're in a prison." Because there are approximately 40 cameras installed on the Lepizig campus, it is understandable that the University's Data Protection Commissioner Thomas Braatz is contemplating the creation of an archive in which the tapes would be kept for a month before being erased. In Cologne, at Germany's largest university, 85,000 deutchmarks [trans: approximately $50,000] have already been invested. Another half-million DM may be allocated if the Director there gets his way. But this enthusiast for technology hasn't taken into account the costs incurred due to damages inflicted upon and thefts of these cameras.

Meanwhile, the trend towards surveillance grows stronger. Formerly found in department stores and nowhere else, surveillance cameras have slowly appeared in public spaces, without arousing large-scale protests. The consciousness of the private sphere and civil rights has strongly diminished. One reason for this is the fear of crime. While the number of criminal offenses in 2000 (7,625 instances per 100,000 people) was less than in 1993 (8,337 instances per 100,000 people), the fear of becoming a victim increased. Politicians and the media have picked up the theme, and have thereby strengthened the effect. Those who reject surveillance cameras must answer the question: "Do you have something to hide?" Exactly the same thing happened with the hysteria concerning child abuse and genetic fingerprinting. The male populations of entire villages were asked to deliver samples of their DNA; anyone who refused was viewed with suspicion [...]

In the USA, the theater group "Surveillance Camera Players" tries to mobilize people against Big Brother. The group presents short plays in front of the cameras not only to confuse the watchers, but also to remind them of a 1967 Supreme Court decision that held that video surveillance is a serious violation of the private sphere. Meanwhile, activists in Lithuania and Italy have adopted the SCP's peaceful and creative form of resistance to increasing surveillance. Perhaps the next performance will take place in Berlin?

[Written by Markus Reuter and published on 22 August 2001 by Metronauten. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]

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