Surveillance culture sneaks up on Europe, despite resistance

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 16, 2008 

WORLD NEWS SURVEILLANCE 6 MCT

France aims to triple the number of video surveillance cameras in public places, from 20,000 last year to 60,000 by 2009.

FREDERIC POLETTI — Frederic Poletti / MCT

VANVES, France — Despite the fact that fascism and repressive state security services dominated Europe — East and West — at different points in the 20th century, a new culture of surveillance is spreading, slowly, across the region again, using tools that the Nazis and the KGB never had.

The U.S. and Britain stepped up their internal surveillance networks after suffering some of the West's deadliest terrorist attacks in the past decade, but now other European governments are embracing some of the same tools and techniques. The pace of adoption is slower on the Continent than it's been in Britain because of public concerns about liberty and personal privacy.

Take Vanves, a community of 30,000 with ancient roots that has gradually adopted 21st century security measures. The middle-class suburb that adjoins the southern border of Paris was the headquarters for a Wehrmacht motorized division during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Several years ago, the mayor installed a couple of surveillance video cameras to keep an eye on rowdy young men congregating at night, as well as a handful of drug dealers. More were added over time. Now the town has nine cameras operating near schools, in parks and shopping areas, all of them linked to the local and national police.

France aims to triple the number of such cameras in public places to 60,000 by 2009, and while officials and residents express concern about individual privacy and liberty, they are ambivalent about the use of such surveillance tools.

"It's not the state that does this, it's the others," said Alain Winter, a senior officer in France's national directorate-general of police, sounding slightly defensive as he points to individual towns and villages. Winter stresses that the number of public and private surveillance cameras in France is a fraction of that in Britain, which has as many as 10 million.

Surveillance in the U.S. is limited mostly to large cities, such as Chicago, which has more than 2,200 closed circuit cameras spread through the city, and 4,500 in its public schools.

"The state in France asks a lot, has lots of ideas, but has very little money," says Bernard Gauducheau, who's been the mayor of Vanves since 2001.

The mayor, who said that he's merely trying to keep pace with the times, even has a personal blog. Yet he says he initially was reluctant to install video cameras in his town since their record in reducing crime elsewhere is mixed at best, and funding assistance from the central government was limited.

However, he has no regrets.

He stresses that unlike Britain, where tapes are kept indefinitely, tapes here are held only for 48 hours.

"There was a demand from the local population to do something," Gauducheau explained. The cameras "haven't solved all the problems, but the population has thanked me."

Manuel Santin, a fruit-and-vegetable vendor in a pedestrian shopping zone in Vanves, supports the increased surveillance. The 60-year-old Spanish emigre stood opposite one of the town's video cameras. "For me it's no problem," he said. "The more security, the better."

Emmanuel Martinais, a French academic who's studied surveillance systems, said "under Sarkozy, there is stronger repression" in France, a reference to President Nicolas Sarkozy's election on a platform that included a crackdown on crime. Martinais said that Sarkozy and his aides "are inspired by the U.S. and U.K."

In fact, France has a long tradition of domestic surveillance and has monitored its large Muslim community, including mosques, for years. Now, two domestic spy agencies are being merged into one organization that will reportedly have about 6,000 agents, much larger than Britain's MI5.

Even Sarkozy went too far, however, when his government unveiled a plan to combine all intelligence files in a master database known as EDVIGE that would've included the religious beliefs and sexual orientation of tens of thousands of people in France, ranging from union leaders to officers in local community associations. After a public outcry, the Ministry of Interior scaled back its plans.

Winter defended EDVIGE as "a new name for an old program," but in the face of public protest, admitted: "We have to find a balance, we have to find a guarantee for liberty, we acknowledge the public expressions of the people."

That sentiment can be heard elsewhere in continental Europe, although officials keep pushing for broader use of surveillance tools.

"Governments are becoming more and more eager to use surveillance more widely," said Marianne Wade, an expert on European criminal law at the Max Planck Institute, a research center in Germany.

Nils Zurawski, a surveillance expert who lectures at the University of Hamburg, said there are about 500 public surveillance cameras operating in all of Germany today.

There is "a German legacy of data protection and a resistance to snooping", Zurawski says, partly because of the Nazi past and a secret police network that was only disbanded some 20 years ago in eastern Germany.

In the early 1980s, for instance, Germans boycotted a national census that many thought was overly intrusive.

Yet since then, he said, "Technology, behavior and mindsets have changed."

Recent polls have found that a majority of Germans favor increased use of video cameras in public places.

Still, many Europeans are inclined to protest when they perceive that the state is intruding too far in their lives. Other Europeans find it "abhorrent" that the British police have collected DNA samples from people they arrested and kept them indefinitely in a database, Wade said.

The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled in early December that the database violates privacy rights, and ordered that samples taken from people found innocent be removed.

There are other flashpoints in the surveillance versus privacy debate. Data protection is a hot topic is several countries in the region, partly due to a European Union directive on data retention that requires all carriers of electronic communications to retain the data for six months. Wade said that EU countries are allowed to set stricter laws on data retention "as long as they're not endangering free trade."

Germans have held a series of protests in recent months over what they consider government overreach into private information.

There's a standoff in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper house of parliament, over a proposed federal police act that would allow authorities to monitor computers and tap phones without the prior consent of a judge, tap phones of doctors, lawyers and journalists, and allow the federal police to launch investigations without consulting police in individual states.

Meanwhile, Sweden has been in an uproar over a new law that would allow mass surveillance on the Internet. Parliament passed the law over the summer and it's due to be enacted early next year, but protests have prompted the parliament to consider amendments.

Wade, at the Max Planck Institute, worries aloud that there aren't sufficient controls on the use of surveillance programs.

"The laws are always introduced under the guise of anti-terrorist activity or fighting crime," she said, "but they're drafted so loosely that the police can do what they want."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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