August 10, 1997 in Nation/World

Dutch Not Smiling At Spread Of Security Cameras Driver Who Sabotaged Highway Lens A Hero

William J. Kole Associated Press

As morning commuters stream drowsily out of the main rail station, cold and unblinking eyes track their every move.

Several dozen video cameras watch as they walk in and out, buy tickets and newspapers in the lobby and pace the platforms. Elsewhere, in towns big and small, cameras whir away atop bridges, in shops, bars and gas stations, at sporting events and even in some buses and taxis.

The Netherlands is obsessed with installing the latest in electronic surveillance - and all this snooping is beginning to make some Dutch feel a bit wired themselves.

This week, a motorist angered by a camera set up to catch speeders in Alphen aan den Rijn, about 20 miles south of Amsterdam, bolted from his Mercedes and plastered the lens with tape.

“I didn’t do this just for myself, but for everyone,” the 43-year-old man, identified only as Paul, told the daily De Telegraaf.

Police arrested the vigilante. But the newspapers have made him an improbable hero to those in Holland who feel they’re being spied on.

“Usually it doesn’t bother me. But when I see four cameras on a single railroad platform, I think that’s excessive. That aggravates me,” said Maria van der Aa, repairing bicycles in her Amsterdam shop Thursday.

No one seems to know just how many cameras are watching the 16 million Dutch. Some say life in Europe’s most densely populated country has simply bred a desire for more security, and that the affluent Dutch can afford to indulge their penchant for electronic gadgetry.

This week, the city of Amsterdam installed surveillance cameras in 55 buses to deter vandals and pickpockets. Small signs warn riders they’re being recorded, and the tapes are erased after 24 hours.

Municipal Transport Co. chief Andre Testa concedes he was reluctant to install the cameras but calls it a last resort against petty criminals. “These people brought it on themselves,” he said.

Undeniably, cameras do catch criminals and make roads safer.

In May, footage from a gas station camera showing a man filling a fuel container led police in The Hague to arrest him as a suspect in an arson attack that killed a Turkish woman and five of her children.

Cameras in a tunnel leading to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport alert authorities when luggage tumbles from overloaded cars and endangers motorists.

But even Amsterdam police, who plan to install their own cameras in high-crime areas this fall, think it’s getting out of hand.

“We’re absolutely against putting cameras all over the place,” police spokesman Klaas Wilting said. “We feel that people have a basic right to privacy.”

Dutch officials have been studying the issue since last year, when brothel owners in the capital’s red-light district installed cameras outside the houses where prostitutes display themselves in windows.

The cameras, aimed at cutting down on crime and protecting the women, capture not only would-be johns but also tourists. The tapes supposedly are erased every 24 hours, but there’s no legal requirement to do so. Few people even know the cameras exist.

“When cameras are used, people should know they’re there,” said Van der Aa, the bicycle repairwoman. “They have no business taping everything.”

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