BERLIN – The United States is an on-camera nation, as the efforts to identify suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings showed. In the battle of security versus privacy, many European countries have made a different calculation.
U.S. authorities reviewed thousands of videos before releasing the images of the two brothers suspected of planting the bombs in Boston, and there were hints that they could tap into far larger police databases to speed their search. In Europe, expectations for privacy are significantly more robust, making it harder for authorities to push boundaries in their snooping on citizens but also restraining their ability to respond to terrorism.
European legal attitudes toward privacy differ from country to country. Some nations, such as Britain, have so many surveillance cameras that even George Orwell’s former home is surrounded by them. But many countries frown on both public and private surveillance. Boston’s massive data dragnet probably would have been legally treacherous in many European nations, officials said.
Above all, they said, detective work need not depend on pervasive monitoring to be successful. “It’s not about the amount of information, but how it’s used,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German member of the European Parliament who has pushed for the European Union’s data protection regulations to be tightened and standardized. “How did police work when there were no surveillance cameras in this world? I don’t think there was no security.”
In a region where communist era secret police were active just over two decades ago, “you have a historical memory of excessive and arbitrary use of law enforcement,” Albrecht said.
The major marshaling of data in Boston — stitching together surveillance images, private cellphone videos and sometimes inaccurate crowd-sourcing — drew surprise in Europe and some discomfort. Although several European officials expressed sympathy after the attack, they also said it was testament that tremendous volumes of data do not create safety.
“If you ask me personally, I am horrified,” said Thilo Weichert, the data protection commissioner of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, referring to the surveillance situation in America. He has tangled with Facebook over its requirement that users employ their real names when surfing the site, arguing that people should be allowed anonymity. “Surveillance doesn’t give more security. That’s our experience,” he said.
For a country such as Germany, where population censuses cause controversy because they stir memories of Nazi-era racial counting, the question is how to balance modern security concerns with cultural sensitivities, analysts say. There are tight restrictions on how long surveillance camera images can be retained. A 2008 constitutional court decision clamped down on security officials’ ability to monitor computer activity remotely. Even after a crime has been committed, many suspects are identified by only their first name and last initial.