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Moving you, watching you

In Berlin, surveillance in public transport might not rival the ubiquitous CCTV in cities like With more cameras on the U-Bahn, an increased police presence and a new facial recognition pilot, we’re being watched now more than ever before.

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Signs at S-Bahnhof Südkreuz give passengers a choice to pass through a “facial recognition area” or not. Photo by Pavel Mezihorák

In Berlin, surveillance in public transport might not rival the ubiquitous CCTV in cities like London and Paris, but don’t be fooled. With more cameras on the U-Bahn, an increased police presence and a new facial recognition pilot, we’re being watched now more than ever before.

If you’ve visited the high-ceilinged glass-and-steel Südkreuz train station in recent months, you might have seen that something is different. At the bottom of the escalators at the northern entrance of the station you’ll easily spot two large signs sticking to the tiles, indicating a choice of where to go. Follow the white signs for “Keine Gesichtserkennung” (no facial recognition); follow the blue ones for a route that leads you right under the government’s face scanners.

From last August until February, a quartet consisting of the Interior Ministry, the Deutsche Bahn, the Bundespolizei (federal police) and the Bundeskriminalamt (federal criminal police office) has been testing the use of “automated facial recognition” in a pilot project aimed at finding out how reliable cameras might be in detecting and identifying people from a database. First, 300 regular Berlin commuters volunteered to have their pictures taken. Now, three different software operators are testing whether they can spot anyone from that group among the thousands that travel from Südkreuz every day. With 1150 cameras in Berlin’s regional train and S-Bahn stations and 2771 in the BVG’s U-Bahn stations, there’s a lot of potential for facial recognition, should it be implemented city wide. The goal, in the words of Bundespolizei representative Matthias Lehmann, is “to help recognise dangerous situations at an early stage” and test whether cameras at train stations can “immediately provide a safety benefit”. With the system still in its test phase, the Bundespolizei hasn’t specified which people might be included in the database. But the unspoken hope is that in the event of another terrorist attack like the one on the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in December 2016, their system would help them catch the perpetrator before he or she left the country – or, maybe, before he or she even committed the crime.

The police, the BVG and politicians all hearken back to that truck attack as a watershed moment for how Germans view security. Berlin is not yet in the same league as Paris (around 10,000 cameras in the metro) or London (over 15,000 cameras in the tube), but the Bundespolizei and Deutsche Bahn aren’t the only ones stepping up their surveillance game these days. The BVG is investing €48.2 million to equip their stations with modern video technology, meaning a total of 6500 cameras (one every 25 metres) that can pan, zoom and tilt while delivering high-resolution pictures to a central security office. Currently, BVG security can see into every nook and cranny of 45 stations, those deemed the busiest or most crime-ridden. By the end of 2018, that should be true for each of the 173 stations on the network.


Of course, the project has sparked concerns among civil liberty campaigners and a debate on where to draw the fine line between collective security and individual privacy. Maja Smoltczyk, head of the Berlin Commission for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (BlnBDI), has openly criticised both facial recognition as well as the BVG’s planned camera expansion. “The right to privacy and the freedom of action are fundamental human rights and a basis for democratic societies. They must not be undermined only to create a vague feeling of safety,” says BlnBDI press officer Dalia Kues.

The fear that the BVG will soon start prying into travellers’ routines is dismissed by spokesperson Jannes Schwentuchowski. “Firstly, unless the police asks us to save certain footage, every recording is only kept for 48 hours before it’s overwritten. Secondly, of our 260 employees working in security, only a very limited group of those has actual access to our video feeds.”

But Kues is not only worried about how it will affect citizens’ fundamental rights. She’s also sceptical of the actual efficiency of city-wide video surveillance: “At best, it may lead to a shift of crime to other spots. At worst, people who plan rampages and terrorist acts could even be encouraged by the public attention they gain,” she says.

Hakan Taş, a member of the Berlin state parliament for Die Linke and spokesperson on interior politics, agrees. “It’s good for catching criminals, but for preventing crime, surveillance contributes to a false sense of security – the crime will just move. Something that’s of course in the BVG’s interests,” Taş says. He adds that he doesn’t understand why an idle station in Zehlendorf needs the same amount of camera coverage as Alexanderplatz.

But for both Schwentuchowski and Berlin police spokesperson Wilfrid Wenzel, dwindling crime numbers are the best argument in favour of camera surveillance. According to the BVG’s most recent security report, the amount of assaults occurring on BVG premises has decreased 20 percent since 2011, in a period where the number of passengers has risen by the same proportion. There were 3106 attacks in 2016, 2212 of which were in the U-Bahn. Statistically, this means passengers fall victim to a violent crime every 2500th ride.


The release of the tape made people feel less safe, while at the same time the camera did what it was supposed to do – the guy was actually found.

To what extent the decrease can be attributed to cameras is difficult to say. The case seems to be easier to make when it comes to surveillance as a useful tool for crime solving. In December 2016, seven youngsters tried to set a homeless man on fire in the Schönleinstraße station, but eventually turned themselves in when they learned that their deed had been caught on camera. And many Berliners still remember the shocking camera footage of a man violently kicking a 26-year-old woman down the stairs of the Hermannstraße U-Bahn station in October 2016. Released by the German police in December, the video went viral and the suspected perpetrator was arrested soon after thanks to a tip-off from the public. In July last year, he was sentenced to two years and 11 months in prison. Schwentuchowski acknowledges the incident as the perfect example of the ambivalence surrounding video surveillance. “The release of the tape made people feel less safe, while at the same time the camera did what it was supposed to do – the guy was actually found,” he says.

Neither Hakan Taş nor the BlnBDI are completely opposed to video cameras. “Video surveillance can be meaningful for specific purposes and at selected spots,” concedes Kues. Both she and Taş doubt the preventive effects, but believe it to be a good tool to catch perpetrators after a crime has been committed.

Hakan Taş is instead appealing for a bigger, more visible police force, something Berlin’s “red-red-green” government has already put into action with a plan of training 630 new officers in 2018, up from 270 in 2016. The Berlin government also reintroduced the use of so-called Doppelstreifen on the BVG last year. Originally abolished in 2003, these patrols are made up of two BVG security guards and two police officers. Currently, five of these patrols are out each day, which might seem like a drop in the ocean, but BVG’s Schwentuchowski believes that “it has a psychological effect, actively making people think twice.” He’s expecting crime statistics for 2017 to show the positive, deterrent effect of closer cooperation between the BVG and police.

More cameras, more police, improved technology. One thing that’s for sure is that Berlin’s train stations are set to be better surveilled and commuters’ whereabouts more monitored than ever before. Will it make us safer, especially in case of a terrorist attack? Hard to tell. But according to a 2017 Forsa survey, 80 percent of Berlin citizens see increased surveillance as a necessary evil and want more of it.