surveillance technologies (symbolic)Yanawut Suntornkij/

Observation technologies in the field of civil security — opportunities and challenges


Subject and objective of the study

Observation technologies and their areas of application are becoming increasingly important in the field of civil security. The focus of police observation is primarily on people and their activities, whereby the main aim is to recognise and document "conspicuous" behaviour. Examples of applications for observation technologies are metal detectors or body scanners for checking people in security-sensitive areas, video cameras for observing crime-prone locations or the covert collection of content or connection data of electronic communication, for example in the context of counter-terrorism. Actors in non-police hazard services (fire protection and general assistance, rescue services, disaster control) use observation technologies - for example aerial or satellite images - especially for incident detection, situation reconnaissance and situation monitoring.

In public, science and politics, the use of observation technologies for civil security tasks is discussed controversially. On the one hand, observation technologies can be beneficial to the state (and its agencies) to enable the assurance of security. On the other hand, their use raises questions about the actual security benefit, the protection of the collected data, or undesirable effects on the psyche and behavior of the observed persons. The focus of this debate is primarily on police deployment practices, which can be associated with encroachments on individual liberties.

Within the framework of the project, relevant social and political issues arising from the use of observation technologies in the civil security sector were identified and critically reflected upon. For all fields of application, the current state of knowledge about

  • the scientific-technical fundamentals of the respective observation technology in relation to the application requirements and conditions,
  • the respective expected and actual security benefits
  • the legal framework and
  • possible unintended effects and consequences of the use of the technology on the observed persons and the security actors.

were elaborated. This knowledge formed the basis for deriving design options for a goal-oriented and socially sustainable handling of observation technologies in the field of civil security.

Central results

Broad spectrum of applications for observation technologies

Due to the rapid developments in the fields of sensor technology, computer science and information technology, a wide range of observation technologies is already used in civil security practice, and new and expanded fields of application are constantly being added. The security benefits and operational needs are often obvious, e.g., the detection of dangerous substances that are imperceptible to humans, the location of buried persons, the production of aerial images of disaster areas, the visualization of criminal structures, or the observation and recording of crimes.

Psychological and social effects of technologized observation are insufficiently researched

Among the undesirable consequences of the use of observation technologies are possible effects on the psyche and behavior of persons who are affected by the observation but have not given any reason for it themselves. Scientific proof of such effects is difficult, however, because the phenomenon of observation in a social context is very complex. Only video observation has been relatively well researched. According to this, the presence of video cameras can lead to increased self-awareness, which may be perceived as unpleasant, and behavioral modifications in the form of avoiding observed spaces are also possible. However, the current state of research also suggests that these effects should not be overestimated.

Observation practices that take place without the knowledge of the individuals concerned have only become the focus of scientific attention in the wake of the Snowden revelations in 2013. Initial studies show indications of behavioral adaptations or restrictions on one's own actions as a result of (secret) state observation on the Internet or in electronic communication. However, it remains questionable whether these findings, which were obtained almost exclusively in the context of observation practices by (foreign) intelligence services, can also be transferred to police observation practices (in Germany). There is currently a great need for further research in this regard.

Unwanted effects on technology users may reduce security gains again

Possible effects of the use of observation technologies on the security actors using them and their institutions have hardly been researched scientifically so far and also play only a minor role in political and public discourses. In this context, undesirable effects on the technology users can, under certain circumstances, counteract the goal of increasing security through technologization.

For example, observation technologies are often said to be technically superior to human observers, such as automated facial recognition in terms of speed and reliability in detecting wanted persons. However, if security actors lose awareness of the limits and limitations of observation technologies, this can lead to technology-based recommendations for action being accepted without reflection and security-relevant situations not recognized by the technology being overlooked by humans as well. It becomes clear that in considerations and decisions about the (future) use of observation technologies, possible effects on the security actors must be adequately taken into account. To this end, knowledge about such effects needs to be expanded.

Difficult balance between security and freedom

Police observation practices in particular regularly touch on privacy guarantees protected by fundamental rights. This often results in a sensitive tension between societal security needs on the one hand and individual liberties on the other. The principle of proportionality is one of the central instruments for clarifying this tension. This principle requires that any state intervention in fundamental rights must pursue a legitimate purpose using appropriate, necessary and reasonable means.

However, the example of technical observation shows that the test criteria - at least according to current practice - are in part too vague to be able to decide on the proportionality of police observation measures according to social evaluation standards. For example, a means is considered suitable in the constitutional sense as soon as the desired success can potentially be achieved with its help, or at least in individual cases. However, police observation measures fulfill this prerequisite almost automatically, provided that the technical and functional capability of the observation technology in question is given. However, the practical security benefit depends not only on technical criteria, but also on many other factors, such as the respective social application contexts or the behavior of the observed persons. What appears necessary is an "extension" of the proportionality test. Possibilities for this are discussed in the TAB report.

Design options

Options for a goal-oriented and socially acceptable handling of observation technologies in the civil security sector exist

  • for the actors in research and development who provide the observation technologies (both research funding and researchers),
  • for the legislator, who creates the legal framework in advance of the implementation of new observation practices relevant to fundamental rights, as well as
  • for the actors of civil security who use observation technologies operationally, i.e. in particular the authorities and organizations with security tasks.

Through the relevant funding structures (including the German government's framework program "Research for Civil Security"), the actors in research funding have significant opportunities to exert influence in order to help determine the goals and priorities in civil security research. Currently, interdisciplinary project consortia are generally funded in accordance with the integrated research approach, in order to include socio-scientific issues as early as the technology development stage. This makes sense because it increases the chances of successful and socially acceptable practical application. Important research desiderata result from the knowledge gaps identified in the project, for example, with regard to the evaluation of the actual safety benefits, the psychological and social effects of technologized observation, or with regard to possible (potentially negative) effects on the technology users.

It is up to the legislator to create framework conditions for the introduction of new observation practices relevant to fundamental rights and to ensure a balanced relationship between security and freedom. Here, there are design options with regard to an expansion of the proportionality test. For example, in order to improve the possibilities for the suitability test for police observation practices, additional assessment methods would have to be developed alongside technical-functional suitability criteria that can be applied to the respective concrete operational situations and that make it possible to consider technical, legal, sociological and ethical assessment dimensions in an integrated manner. Because technical and social conditions change over time, it also seems important to review the proportionality of police observation practices not just once during the legislative process, but on a regular basis (e.g., every 10 years).

The mandate to regularly scrutinize technicalized observation practices is also directed at civil security actors. In daily practice, the best conditions exist for assessing desired and unintended effects of the use of technology and for clarifying whether the resources expended are in proportion to the knowledge gained. Other design options include confidence-building and transparency-promoting measures. Undercover police surveillance measures in particular can trigger concerns among citizens, some of which are based on false assumptions and are therefore unfounded. In this case, special information offers to inform the population about the goals pursued with the observation measure, the legal prerequisites and limits of the deployment, the precautions taken to mitigate undesirable effects, and the scope of the practical application could help to counter any feelings of insecurity that may result from a lack of knowledge. In principle, understanding and transparency are necessary prerequisites for an informed societal understanding about an acceptable use of observation technologies in the field of civil security.


Observation technologies in the field of civil security – opportunities and challenges
Caviezel, C.; Hempel, L.; Revermann, C.; Steiger, S.
2022. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB). doi:10.5445/IR/1000153825
Beobachtungstechnologien im Bereich der zivilen Sicherheit – Möglichkeiten und Herausforderungen
Caviezel, C.; Hempel, L.; Revermann, C.; Steiger, S.
2022. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB). doi:10.5445/IR/1000153824
Beobachtungstechnologien im Bereich der zivilen Sicherheit – Möglichkeiten und Herausforderungen. Endbericht zum TA-Projekt
Caviezel, C.; Hempel, L.; Revermann, C.; Steiger, S.
2022. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB). doi:10.5445/IR/1000153823

In the Bundestag