The consequences of new surveillance technology

Published 10 June 2010

Many wish for better security in public places, and support installation of new video surveillance technologies to achieve this goal; these surveillance technologies, however, have important psychological and legal implications, and four German universities cooperate in studying these implications

Surveillance capture of actual bank robbery // Source:

Brawls in the city center, homicide on railway platforms, or suitcase bomb attacks. In Germany, such criminal acts may not happen on a day to day basis, but neither are they rare occurrences. Video cameras recording what is going on in public places act as a deterrent to potential perpetrators. With their visual evidence, they also ensure that many of the culprits can be quickly identified and arrested. It would be even better, though, to have an intelligent video surveillance system which would automatically notify the police while the crime is still in progress.

Video tracking and pattern recognition

Two innovative security technologies for video surveillance are currently in development: Pattern recognition and video tracking.


In case of pattern recognition, a computer automatically identifies actions or objects of interest from the photographic images of a surveillance camera — it can recognize a fight, a suitcase that has been left behind, or a person lying on the ground. Such items are immediately brought to the attention of security guards. The guards decide whether or not to alert the police.

Video tracking systems enable you to monitor and track moving objects across multiple camera views, for example, to spot a criminal fleeing through the corridors of a subway station.

Four universities coordinate their research in a network

Under which conditions are the new surveillance techniques practical? What are the chances and risks? These are the questions that social psychologists, sociologists, ethics specialists, and legal scholars of the Universities of Würzburg, Freiburg, Potsdam, and Tübingen are concerned with.


The network project MuViT — Mustererkennung und Video-Tracking (pattern recognition and video tracking) — is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research under the “research for civil security” program introduced by the federal government.

The University of Würzburg has even two study groups participating in the project; they are granted about €400,000 in funds by the Ministry of Education and Research. The teams are headed by Professor Fritz Strack (social psychology) and Professor Ralf Schenke (law).

Impact of the technology on people

A study group of social psychologists lead by Professor Fritz Strack and Dr. Petra Markel looks into the impact of the new surveillance techniques on perception, experience, and social behavior of the people under surveillance.


What we already know: When people are confronted with mirrors or cameras, they tend to focus their attention on themselves. As a consequence, their experience and behavior changes — for example, the willingness to help others increases. Do people also behave differently when they are aware of being monitored with the new technologies? Are they more helpful in this case as well?

Does the surveillance also deter people from bad behavior? For instance, is there any effect on street littering? How are people doing when they know that they are under surveillance? Do they experience more stress and are they less capable? Do they associate surveillance with better security or do they feel subjected to undue control? These are the problems that the psychologists want to clarify with the help of test persons in the laboratory.

Another important objective: The researchers would like to know how the public debate on advantages and risks of video surveillance influences people’s attitudes. They are particularly interested in the factors that are decisive for the new system to get accepted.

Legal problems following the new type of surveillance

Which legal problems arise from the new type of surveillance? How are these problems to be solved once the surveillance techniques have been implemented?


These questions will be dealt with by the second Würzburg research team lead by the legal scholars Professor Ralf Schenke and Cornelius Held. The aim is to prepare a list of criteria in this field.

There will be a focus on questions regarding the compatibility of the techniques with basic rights. In particular, the basic right to informational self-determination is at the center of the discussion. The general freedom of action and the principle of equality granted in the German constitution can also be relevant in this context.

Are private companies allowed to implement the new surveillance techniques, for example, in an open office environment? Who decides which persons and behavioral patterns the video surveillance system is to look for? Does the computer search for dark-skinned males? Does the system pick up sick or disabled people because they differ in their movement from the standard pattern? The two last examples could give rise to problems concerning the principle of equality laid down in the German constitution.