Privatised municipal surveillance on the stage of security theatre in Slovenia

The municipality of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, wasted almost two years deflecting freedom of information requests (FOIAs) from EDRi member Državljan Dsfor the municipal CCTV system data in the city. The data, when finally provided, revealed the scale of ineffective security theatre paid for by Ljubljana’s citizens, and the need for a public debate about the use of this technology.

By Državljan D/Citizen D (guest author) · March 20, 2024

Municipal CCTV data is public data

The municipally-owned CCTV company had sued the Slovenian Data Protection Authority (DPA) in order to block the release of municipal CCTV system data. But the ruling of an administrative court made it clear that making the CCTV system data available is in the public’s interest, not just because the system was paid for with public funds but also because the citizen have the right to know where and how the municipality is surveilling them.

During the hearings of this case, the municipally-owned company used several bad faith arguments to block the release of the data under the local FOIA law. First, they tried to shift the responsibility to the municipality, which previously named the company as the relevant actor. The company then claimed that the data set is too big to compile. Other ineffectual arguments used were: the release of the data will have negative consequences for crime prevention and that the data was not in the public interest.

What is the function of the municipal CCTV system in Slovenia?

Državljan D set up project ‘Panoptikon’ in order to asses and question the functionality of municipal CCTV systems throughout Slovenia. By sending out FOIA requests to the municipalities, they have collected data from over 20 largest municipalities in Slovenia in their database. MMost municipalities were willing to provide the data.

Some of them were publishing the data themselves, quoting the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and data protection impact assessment. The data shows that most of the municipalities were using the cameras for traffic control, protection of municipal property and artifacts (train/bus stations, squares, parks).

Data on Ljublana’s CCTV system revealed that the Slovenian capital boasts a significantly larger number of CCTV cameras than the other nine largest municipalities (536 cameras in Ljubljana, 384 cameras total in others).

But how effective are these CCTV systems? Most of the observed municipal cameras in Ljubljana are low-budget Dahua CCTV cameras. While the municipality does not publish any statistics in this regard, we were able to find several reports of criminal activities where the cameras explicitly did not assist the police in the prevention of crime.

For example, the central marketplace in Ljubljana currently has 40 cameras in place, which were installed in October 2022, to ‘prevent crime’. When asked about the crime statistics, the municipality responded they do not keep records, but based on individual crime reports, the new years’ celebration in 2023 was the worst in terms of crimes-committed in the last five years. The cameras were not at all useful in this regard.

Another case where the CCTV proved its ineffectiveness was the months-long theft of copper-elements in outdoor lightning in Tivoli, the biggest park in Ljubljana park. Even though the cameras recorded the perpetrator on different occasions, the police went on record saying that the recordings were useless as their image quality was very low.

This would mean that the only thing that the municipal CCTV system is good for in these public areas is for spying on innocent citizens walking through the park or the marketplace in broad daylight, without criminal intent.

Changing the status-quo of how CCTV systems are used

Data transparency on the municipal CCTV systems is just the first step in starting a debate and changing the decision-making process regarding the procurement and usage of these technologies.

Državljan D’s case clearly shows that mapping projects by independent actors are not an effective solution, but they do shine an initial light on the issue. The arguments in the court case against the CCTV companywill serve as an effective tool in countering any future FOIA rejections by other municipalities in Slovenia, and possibly across the EU.

Another issue to address in the debate about the use of this technology is access to data that shows whether or not these cameras are effective. Državljan D have already sent a new FOIA request to the municipality, requesting the crime reports that are based on CCTV data. They will further call on the municipalities to provide clear numbers on CCTV effectiveness in crime prevention/determent, urban planning and other claimed CCTV functions.

There needs to be an informed debate on this topic and that cannot do that if the bulk of the municipality’s reasoning is wrapped up in hearsay and opaque decisions are taken by a municipally-owned company that tries really hard to behave like a private actor.

There is also a question of the role of informed citizens. Municipal CCTV cameras in Ljubljana sometimes appear without any clear labels, which is a violation of law. Državljan D have reported a few instances to the national DPA that is currently opening an investigation into the matter. At the same time, the majority of the people simply does not care about public surveillance, because the system is relatively opaque and there is a lack of public discussion. Interestingly, Državljan D are the first to mapthe municipal CCTV cameras via FOIA requests – in the past, journalists and other actors were mostly relying on official statements and unofficial numbers when writing about this issue.

Finally – after the data and effect reporting takes place, there needs to be an honest discussion and a clear decision-making process that will answer the question: Is the municipal CCTV system a force for good or are we all just paying prime seats in the first row of the security theater?

What next?

Državljan D’s ultimate goal is to improve the data management and CCTV cameras scheme by proposing new legal frameworks that regulate this topic.

After the wrap-up of the CCTV cameras mapping phase, they aim to expand their investigation by focusing on the CCTV data management by issuing new personal data requests. They will further investigate the quality of the CCTV recordings and how the city managing this data. Furthermore, they intend to propose a new local legislation that will obligate the municipal CCTV system manager to provide the citizens with an up-to-date map of every active municipal camera.

Ultimately, Državljan D hope these activities will help developing a new social agreement regarding the municipal CCTV cameras and their implementation, breaking through the current status quo that is riddled with opaque implementation, unclear benefits and public money.

Contribution by: Domen Savič, Executive Director, EDRi member, Državljan D/Citizen D