Wednesday, November 6, 2013
More Surveillance In Germany?
Update: well, that was quick. The Federal Minister of the Interior has already backed away from his own plan. So, the SPD actually wants to keep their promise that the data will only be used to collect the toll. What I have written still very much true. It might still be worth a read.
Merkel's conservative Union (CDU and CSU) is in favor of using the German Toll Collect system for trucks on Autobahns as a surveillance system. Among other means to measure the distance driven by trucks, like GPS, there are scanners installed - one between two exits - which are able to collect all plates on all lanes and therefore not only the distance travelled, but also the approximate time when a car used an exit. Back then the system was being considered by the Social Democrat (SPD) and Green government, there was criticism that the system might in the end be used for a toll for cars and to create movement profiles of normal citizens. At that time, the government claimed that that would never ever happen.
Both is currently under consideration and the SPD - Merkel's future partner - might sell out the citizens once again. So, all those who thought that there would be at least some minimum scrutiny applied to future surveillance might have been wrong. For the Ministry of the Interior it is enough to just claim that these data might somehow help solving capital crimes.
But it doesn't end there. The Union "experts" also wants to make it easier to collect data from Internet exchange points and hot spots. Of course, they also favor more video surveillance and want to increase the power of the Federal Internal Intelligence Service (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz). There are also some good signs. Some in the SPD actually think that all these measures are "unproporionate".
Let's see if that is true for using the Toll Collect system as a surveillance measure: Germany is a very safe country compared to for example the US. In 2010, 958 persons were convicted of murder and manslaughter including attempts in Germany. That same year there were over 14,000 homicides committed in the USA. Of course, that is not a perfect comparison, since the German statistic can include anything from several people attempting to murder a single person to one person convicted of several murders. Also not every single case also leads to a conviction, but for the above crimes that rate is around 96 percent. Looking just at the intentional homicide rate, we see that there are 0.8 per 100,000 citizens in Germany, while in the US that number stands at a staggering 4.7, putting the country right between Laos and Thailand.
So, Germany is a very safe country even compared to other European states (Western Europe 1.0); and additionally most homicides lead to a conviction in the end. Not only that: the number of people convicted has been falling significantly, since 1998 while the clearance rate for homicides remained above 95 percent.
(The graph only includes the "old states and Berlin" because there aren't data going back that long for the new states. Nmber of people convicted each year.)
But, would these data help solving a few more crimes? Probably not. We are talking about very circumstantial evidence which shows that a car (and possibly the driver if a picture is saved and quality is good enough) left and/or entered an Autobahn at a certain time. If the Autobahn isn't the scene of the crime then this fact just isn't worth all that much. There is only one major case in Germany in which it might have been a significant factor. A truck driver had been shooting primarily at car transporters since 2008. In total he fired at least 700 shots in five years and he also injured two persons. Here the situation is very clear: that person could have been caught earlier if the Toll Collect data had been used. Another scenario would be serial killers, who murder close to an Autobahn and use it to get away. This has happened long ago in Germany, but again there are only very few of those in the country. Here we are already talking about a lot of ifs. If somebody murders several people close to the Autobahn and if that person uses it to get away which would only happen if the person is unable to read the newspaper, then these data might be helpful in saving lives. The same is also true for robberies. We could also climb further down on the severity ladder and the most likely crimes in which it could help would be auto theft, but we are talking about organized crime here. They will a) use fake plates b)avoid the Autobahn and c) use "couriers", who are pretty much irrelevant in the big picture, also here all data need to be processed live to even have a chance to catch the thief.
I am having a hard time coming up with a reason why the party would think that using the Toll Collect system, especially if they only want it for solving homicides, would even be helpful. It is such a unlikely scenario that this could be what is needed to get a break in a case. So, why do they want it? On the one hand it seems to be based on principle. The CDU and especially its Bavarian sister party the CSU are the parties of more surveillance. It does not matter if there are any cases where it would help: more surveillance is always better, well, except in the case of Merkel's phone. On the other hand, Union "experts" seem to be watching too much TV. Their whole worldview seems to be based on US TV shows like Criminal Minds, where not only one serial killer is on the loose every week, but also in the end the perpetrator is always caught with the help of big data. They seem to be having a really hard time to discern the real life low crime situation in Germany from US television show, where violent crime is the fictional normality.
If the SPD caves and the Toll Collect data can be used, then it will be a smashing success it could even be reaching the scale of the one or possibly two cases in ten years. On the downside we only have millions of Germans whose whole life is under almost complete surveillance, but it doesn't matter because in the fictional universe, that German conservatives are living in, only good guys use the data for a "noble goal"*.
*That is the assessment that Minister of the Interior Friedrich gave on the NSA surveillance. Back then, he also believed that the the NSA wasn't actually spying on Germany (it is, hmm, well, interesting that he both believed that the NSA acted noble and didn't act at all). The doctor of law is famos for making up the blatantly unconstitutional super-basic-right "security" on the fly. He is leading the coalition talks on security for Merkel's Union, and seems to be the origin of this new nonsense.