AI-powered surveillance

In Mannheim, an automated system reports hugs to the police

Mannheim, a large city on the Rhine, deployed a video system that claims to automatically detect physical violence in some streets. It can confuse hugging with strangling, and it is unclear whether it can actually prevent violence.

At the Alter Messplatz in Mannheim, four men sit on benches by the water while kids race scooters around the square. Earlier, two women thought the building behind the men was a public toilet, but it is a performance space, part of a new community center that houses a bar, basketball court and sports equipment rental. But there's something else going on in the square: it is also a testing ground for what Baden-Württemberg’s interior ministry describes as Europe's first ever intelligent video surveillance system, which is now being tested in Hamburg. 

When this comes up, one of the men (Daniel) says, “Mannheim is always first to test things” and another man (Günter) comments that this is "because Mannheim is open to everything”.

Activists who want to ban police use of face recognition argue that it treats people as “walking ID cards.” No problem: "The future will be AI surveillance," explains Markus Müller from the Fraunhofer Society. His vision is of police getting live footage of people in public spaces as stick figures. If one stick figure assaults another, it will be flagged for officers to decide whether to intervene.

Since 2018, the German research organization has been using Mannheim’s public surveillance cameras to try to train algorithms to spot “hitting, strangling, and kicking.” Initially, Müller says, officers would switch the “AI surveillance” feature off, because so many movements were flagged. Now, the algorithms are flagging hugs as "strangling". He adds that this is not necessarily a problem, because a hug can be non-consensual: "Imagine a stranger hugs you from behind,” he says. “Here, we need the police as the decision-maker to take a look.”

In the USA, companies are controversially promising to detect guns and gunshot sounds. But Daniel Lawrence, who researches police technologies at the CNA Center for Justice Research and Innovation, says he hasn't yet heard of a system that detects a fight breaking out: “I just can't imagine the technology is there yet,” he says. “There are already so many high errors in object detection.” 

How did a public survey justify "smart cameras"? 

When I come back to Alter Messplatz a few days later, it is empty and quiet. A little girl runs through the sprinklers and chases a flock of pigeons. Some boys run races, while two kick a football back and forth across the square. 

In 2018, Michaela Kobsa-Mark came here to film a documentary about the “smart surveillance” project for her film school degree. The city had just announced that it would test an “intelligent camera system” to alert the police of “street crime” in Mannheim’s “criminal hotspots.” For example: the Alter Messplatz. 

"What interested me was what legitimized this project," Kobsa-Mark says. In a 2016 “security survey” many of the 10,000 randomly chosen residents of Mannheim indicated that they felt less safe on the streets and said they wanted video surveillance. 

At the time, “there was a lot of racism in Mannheim,” says Kobsa-Mark. In the film, she speaks to four women at a christmas market. “In the past children could still pay in the streets. Nowadays you have to make sure they don't get kidnapped,” one blonde says. She later adds, “I would take people who migrated here and refugees who fled war and commit such crimes... I would deport them.” When Kobsa-Mark asks “Have you personally experienced something in the criminal hot spots?” and “Do you have friends or relatives who have experienced something here?” the women shake their heads. 

The questions Kobsa-Marks asked these women were similar to the “security survey” questions. She was shocked by the second question, which asks what the resident thinks is “problematic” in their neighborhood, listing as options (along with “bored youths” and “drunks”): “migrants who live in Germany for a long time”, “economic migrants from Eastern Europe” and “asylum seekers”. This question has been repeatedly criticized in Mannheim’s security committee, but remains part of the survey. Dieter Herrmann, a criminology professor in Heidelberg who designed the questionnaire, did not reply to our request for comment.

In fact, crime in the “hotspots”, i.e. busy places in the city center where the crime rate is higher than other parts of town, decreased between 2015 and 2017, before the “AI surveillance” project started. “I was surprised that a subjective feeling could be a legitimate reason,” says Kobsa-Mark. (Overall, the 10,000 survey-takers' main concerns in 2016 were trash on the streets and parking offenders). 

Alter Messplatz

At the bike shop at the Alter Messplatz, one salesman says he saw police vans drive up to the square one day in 2019. Officers wearing regular clothes got out and started staging fights in front of the new cameras. “I thought they were testing the camera angle,” he says. 

From the institute in Karlsruhe, Müller says that the Mannheim police, in absence of real-life everyday scuffles, have been sending them videos of themselves play-fighting to train the algorithms. They also send videos of citizens caught on camera. For example, Mueller mentioned a man slapping a woman’s butt. “A very distinctive movement.”

Outside a kiosk, four women are sharing cigarettes. One woman says that she is in favor of having cameras: “In case something ever does happen, then they can provide evidence.” Her friend, who works at the central train station, says, at the prospect of live-alerts to the police: “But then they’d just be here all the time!” (Police officers frequently drive around the Alter Messplatz and conduct ID checks. Everyone I spoke to said they racially profile young people who hang around the community space.) 

One lady who works at the square shares that officers made her teenage son stand facing the wall outside her shop and empty his pockets. “Do you know how much this hurt me?” she says. Around two years ago, she filmed officers tying a 15-year-old boy’s hands behind his back with a cable while he was lying on the ground of the square, because, she says, the officers had felt threatened by the puppy that he and his friends had been playing with.

Müller’s motivation

Back at the institute, Müller explains he was in part inspired by the case of a retired headmaster who was badly beaten up by two youths in a subway in Munich in 2007. "Imagine if cameras would alert police and they can be there in two minutes," he says. (The police promised two minutes in 2019.) Müller says he’s used a picture of the 2007 subway attack - which was big in the media - to promote the “smart surveillance” project.  

Initially, the city of Mannheim - noting the Fraunhofer Society’s other research projects (systems that spot people drowning or epileptic attacks) - asked the institute if they could train algorithms to flag physical violence. Meanwhile, at security conferences, the Fraunhofer Society is pitching the next idea, based on the 2019 neo-Nazi shooting in Halle: "the pose of someone carrying a long gun” or “stretching their arms out to shoot."  

“I enjoy watching Aktenzeichen XY,” says Müller, referring to the German crime series that asks viewers if they have information for unsolved crimes. 27 years ago, there was an episode in Mannheim, after a woman was murdered on her way home from a bar. “Possibly our system could have prevented this,” Müller says. Back to the hugs: “The woman in Mannheim was also hugged, but she didn’t want to be,” says Müller. “Then she was raped and murdered.”

“In the US, we have had questions and discussions about fighting analytics from multiple [law enforcement] agencies,” says Ethan Ace, who leads video surveillance testing at the Pennsylvania-based video surveillance research group IPVM. But so far, no such system is proven to work. Even if it does, Ace emphasizes, officers may have an overwhelming number of alerts to review per hour. Moreover, “an increase in arrests or police contact simply for ‘kids being kids’ seems like a poor use of resources.” 

Police violence at Marktplatz

Another square in Mannheim’s city center that is serving as a testing ground for Fraunhofer’s AI-powered surveillance system, the Marktplatz. Here, there are a number of fruit and vegetable stalls three days a week, where the traders I spoke to appreciate the cameras (“as a business owner, I don’t mind”). Cino, who owns two restaurants on the square, says he sometimes sees people at night “who pass out, because they are drunk”. His friend Hatice stresses she would like the police to do more about the sexual assaults reported to them (“They do nothing, maybe file a complaint against unknown.”) 

Both say the surveillance system sounds good. “Last year, there were two police officers who killed someone over there,” Cino says, motioning to a butcher’s shop and cafe at the corner of the square. “If the cameras were there, then the truth would be out now.” 

“We don’t know whose fault it was,“ one young woman, who works at her parent’s dress shop, says. “My mother saw it and people said it was the fault of the police. But people were saying different things, like some said he had a knife and others said he didn’t.”

In May 2022, a 47-year-old man who was having mental health problems died after being repeatedly punched and pinned to the ground by two police officers on Marktplatz. (The automated system was installed at Marktplatz at the time but it’s unclear whether the “AI surveillance” feature was turned on and whether the presumed killing was in the visual angle of the cameras). A criminal investigation - based on 120 mobile phone videos and testimony by 91 eyewitnesses - found that the man lost consciousness due to being pinned to the ground and inhaling blood from a nosebleed due to being punched. One officer was charged with bodily injury resulting in death, and another with negligent homicide by omission. In the next few weeks, the Mannheim court is going to announce whether there will be a trial.  

“I think this is taking extra long,” says Andreas Scheibner from the German Association for Disabled People (ABiD). He knew the man well. They were both on a works' council in Mannheim. “We often see that the police will delay cases like this... it means that almost no one can remember what happened.” (This is why ABiD is demanding independent complaint offices for survivors of police violence.) 

Back at Alter Messplatz

“The city of Mannheim said: we need a surveillance project, but they didn’t have the capacity for analog surveillance. The AI was meant to replace human tasks,” Kobsa-Mark says. However, almost no one I spoke to seemed to know about the CCTV algorithms or what they were meant for. This included one traffic officer, who said the increase of cameras meant that people from Mannheim’s "drinking scene" are "taking fewer liberties" with "aggressive behavior towards the public order officers”, and have mostly left these surveilled places. 

Back at Alter Messplatz, however, one man, who says he is recognized by "everyone" since appearing in a documentary about Mannheim as a face of the neighborhood alcoholics anonymous group, says "we fought for this space" (referring to the community center, which is called “alter”). Fellow square-visitor, David, says that the 1.6 million euros funding for Europe’s one-of-a-kind “intelligent video surveillance” project, "could probably have also been invested in something else.”

Get the briefing on how automated systems impact real people, in Europe and beyond, every two weeks, for free.

For more detailed information, please refer to our privacy policy.