There is hardly a single street in the semi-autonomous zone of Iraqi Kurdistan where one does not see a raft of security cameras pointed at passers-by. Many of the security cameras are installed by private citizens but in some parts of the region, the security forces responsible for internal regional security, known as the Asayesh, are compelling owners of public buildings and businesses to install them.
Security cameras have been installed on Iraqi Kurdistan’s roads for many years but now the number of public and private security cameras in action is thought to rival camera-per-capita figures for some of the most surveilled cities in the world. In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and home to the regional Parliament and other government departments, there are an estimated 8,000 official cameras deployed. The regional Ministry of the Interior plans on erecting another 5,000 cameras on and around main roads in the near future.
Additionally, “anyone who wants to open a store is required to install surveillance cameras or he will not be given permission to open the business,” explains Tariq Nouri, the head of the Asayesh in Erbil. “Companies, restaurants, casinos and residential compounds are all obliged to install security cameras. However owners of private residences can decide for themselves if they wish to do this.”
Additionally, Nouri said, cables for faster Internet are being installed underground, which will make keeping an eye on the various security cameras even easier.
“Surveillance cameras assist us in detecting attacks, especially in crowded areas,” claims Hogir Aziz, the spokesperson for the Erbil police. “We have used the recordings from security cameras after getting court permission.”
Unlike in Erbil, the installation of security cameras is not compulsory in Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major city, Sulaymaniyah.
They don’t violate people’s liberties, they protect their lives.
“We always advise people to install security cameras in their houses or in their neighbourhoods and in markets but we don’t force anyone to do this,” Rzgar Hama Rahim, the spokesperson for the Asayesh in Sulaymaniyah told NIQASH; apparently there was a plan to set up more security cameras in the province but that has been put on hold due to Iraqi Kurdistan’s financial crisis. “Security cameras play an important role in finding criminals and we may be able to reduce the number of crimes committed here because of them. For example, we have found gangs dealing in counterfeit currencies, using security cameras.”
Sarkout Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Sulaymaniyah police, says the cameras are particularly useful for attacks on private homes and for traffic incidents. One of the most recent incidents to illustrate this was a hit and run incident in Erbil on Dec. 25 last year. The police were able to find the driver very quickly.
There are also others profiting from the security cameras. There had been a surge in security camera sales in Iraqi Kurdistan at first but that has changed over the past few years, traders say, also due to the financial crisis.
Farouq Mohammed opened a camera shop in Sulaymaniyah in 2012 and he says that during 2013 and 2014, he sold many of them; most of the ones sold in Iraqi Kurdistan are made in China.
“Shops, supermarkets, barber shops, casinos and many other public businesses need approval from the government and that approval is given on the condition that surveillance cameras are installed,” Mohammed told NIQASH.
Security cameras cost anything between US$25 to US$200 per camera.
Amanj Abdallah, a camera seller from Erbil, has also been selling the surveillance tools since 2012. But after the Asayesh ordered everyone to install security cameras, there has been increased demand, he says.
Both Abdallah and Mohammed believe the security cameras are useful. However, just as in other countries that have used security cameras, there is no real evidence that the security cameras prevent crime.
Just as in other countries where security cameras are in use, locals in Iraqi Kurdistan have criticized the cameras as an invasion of privacy. While security cameras have played a definitive role in finding perpetrators after a crime is committed and in preventing theft in parking garages and on public transport, they have not been proven to actually prevent criminal or terrorist activity in other countries. While security cameras were very useful following the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 and after terrorist attacks on public transport in London in 2005, they did not, for example, prevent the recent attacks in Paris, in cafes and in a music venue.
Local lawyer Soran Mohammed says the situation is completely different in Iraqi Kurdistan. In developed countries security cameras are used to protect public property and lives whereas in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are just installed to protect the authorities and to ensure that officials are not attacked, he says.
“When a crime is committed against an official, the offender is usually arrested really quickly. But if crimes are committed by anyone suspected of connection to an official – especially in targeted assassinations – none of the suspects are ever arrested. Even though there are security cameras everywhere,” Mohammed says.
“Installing these cameras everywhere is a violation of people’s rights,” he continues. “Anything they do could be used against them. Additionally there is no law here that controls how the cameras are being used.”
There is no single body watching over the security cameras either. Previously the Ministry of the Interior would report to the local parliamentary committee concerned but since Iraqi Kurdistan’s government has not been operating properly for over a year, this has not been happening.
“We don’t know how many cameras there are now because we haven’t had any meetings with the Ministry of the Interior for more than a year,” Ayoub Abdallah, chairman of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament's Committee on Internal Affairs, Security and Local Councils, told NIQASH. "These cameras are installed because of security considerations, we are told. But we want to know why there are another 5,000 coming – especially because they are not under our control at all.”
For obvious reasons, the Asayesh refute any criticisms of the security cameras.
“They don’t violate people’s liberties, they protect their lives,” the Erbil Asayesh’s Nouri says.
“The European countries have the most freedom and they too have security cameras,” the Sulaymaniyah Asayesh’s Rahim justifies the cameras. “These cameras are not a violation of personal freedoms. Rather they are a way of maintaining security and stability. That’s not in any way a violation of freedoms.”
Nonetheless the questions from critics remain: If these cameras are so essential to security, then why have they not been used to find the gunmen killing journalists and politicians in what appear to be targeted assassinations?