Scenario: Panopticon vs. Civic Courage

Thomas Kittel, Carsten Trinitis

A Bavarian company that develops camera systems and software for video surveillance in public places is expanding its product’s functionality to include the precise localization of various sounds (for example, gunshots) using multiple microphones. A record is made of all the data captured by the microphones.

The data collected is of such high quality that individual conversations can be easily extracted. So now it’s possible in real-time to use facial recognition posted in a Facebook search to identify who is in a surveillance video and to extract what that person is saying automatically.

Even though company employees are fully aware of the implications for the privacy of people being observed, they consider it an essential crime-fighting tool because they believe it will deter would-be criminals who come within viewing range of the cameras.

So that’s why they’re marketing the product as a video security system.

As an employee, Bernd knows that this new technology not only stores people’s movement profiles but also saves their conversations for thirty days. But he simply can’t imagine why anyone would abuse this data for nefarious purposes. Besides, he thinks the company is so small that no one would be interested in the data they collect anyway.

Plus, the budget for the system is limited, so he decides to set up the servers and databanks for storing all this sensitive data himself without knowing enough about data security to do this.

After an eighteen-month test phase at two centrally located public squares and in the city’s public transportation system, the audio-visual surveillance system is slated for city-wide installation.

Politicians and business executives speak in terms of a crucial system that’s already reduced the city’s crime rate and can now reduce it even further with this new technology (“Our success rate speaks for itself!”). Many residents were initially skeptical because it meant that their every move would be caught on tape, and now even their conversations would be recorded (and saved). Still, most of them quickly got used to it and now feel comfortable (and safe) with the system.

One balmy summer evening after the test period had run, two foreign correspondents ride a bus through the city center as tourists. Through the bus window, they witness a man stumble backward out of a bar and into the street. Behind him, two other stockily built individuals follow and attack the man lying on the ground. The journalists also watch as bystanders retreat rather than intervene and stand idly by at a safe distance as the offenders continue to beat the victim bloody as he is lying on the ground. Peter is among the locals passing by: he just assumes that the perpetrators will be easily identified and apprehended with the help of the audio and video recordings, so he figures there’s no need to risk his own life by getting involved.

Meanwhile, the out-of-town journalists urge the driver to call in an emergency and stop so the bus they can get out and intervene. But all the bus driver has to say is, “Don’t worry about it; that’s all on video. They’ll catch the perpetrators.” One of the passengers screams at them, “Do you want to get yourselves killed, or what? They won’t stop with you!” As they drive by, they see the victim’s motionless body lying in his blood.

After the incident, police officer Karl was tasked with reviewing the video data to ascertain precisely what happened that evening and who the perpetrators were. The officer first questioned some of the passersby, Peter included, whose contact information had been obtained through a radio cell inquiry and who were automatically summoned. Most witnesses, though, only vaguely recalled the incident. They’ve already suppressed it from memory, assuming that what happened was captured on video anyway. So Karl requests access to audio and video recordings from the crime scene. But about two weeks later, he learns that the cameras for that location were inoperable when the crime was committed. However, from the audio recordings, he knows that the perpetrators had been threatening the victim for quite some time inside the bar. Because there’s no video footage, though, the investigation hits a dead-end.

Upon their return home, the two journalists pen an article about civic courage in Germany—using the bus incident as a case in point. It’s published in the print edition of a major newspaper and on the paper’s website. A debate about the incident quickly ensues on social media, prompting traditional news outlets to delve more deeply into the matter. It becomes apparent that perceived security leads to widespread insecurity and indifference since people no longer feel any sense of personal responsibility. Closer examination reveals that crime hasn’t diminished; it’s merely moved from the significant public squares to other less highly surveilled places. Crime in some of these different areas has gotten so bad that people are afraid even to visit these neighborhoods. Even the police struggle to gain control over these new crime hotspots.

As a result, the developers of the surveillance system are suddenly subject to widespread media scrutiny. However, the developers are becoming increasingly aware of the drawbacks to deploying this technology: The system that was intended to make the city safer has led to the death of at least one individual. Bernd doubts how the cameras just happened to have failed, so he steals a second look at the database log files and notices that someone has accessed them multiple times. Could it be that someone deliberately deleted the data? If so, that would mean that there was a flaw in his design of the databank and corresponding access privileges. So he decides to keep the discovery to himself.

Secretly, he’s hoping that all the media scrutiny will soon subside.


  • Should technology be seen as an all-encompassing panacea for solving all society’s problems?
  • How should the sheer volume of data collected from the population under surveillance be handled?
  • What risks are involved?
  • What actions should Bernd take as a result of his discovery?
  • Should he invest his private time in the project even though there is no budget for it? Should he get out ahead of the story and contact the press himself?
  • Who should have access to the collected data? What are the (legal) justifications to determine who has access?
  • Have the passersby exposed themselves to legal liability for failing to render aid?
  • Has responsibility shifted from the civic arena to the authorities in charge of surveillance?
  • Can anyone ever be called to account for anything once everything has been left to technology?

Erschienen im Informatik Spektrum 39 (1), 2016, S. 82-84

— Translated from German by Lillian M. Banks

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