The three young men sitting in one of the many coffee shops in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul were surprised to find a large camera directed at them where they sat. Concerned about being under observation, they decided to leave. But just as they were going to do so, they were approached by the coffee shop’s manager, Umar al-Saffar, who wanted to explain what the camera was doing there.
“All coffee shops, restaurants, recreational facilities and car parks have these kinds of cameras now,” he told them. “And they’ve all been installed because the military responsible for security here has ordered the owners to do so.”
Al-Saffar’s customers are not the only ones under observation. Cameras are mostly being installed in main street businesses in more urban areas although, by and large, residential areas have not been affected.
“The decision to install cameras in these places was issued by the [Ninawa security] committee around five months ago,” Abdul Rahim al-Shammari, a former head of the provincial council\'s security committee in Mosul, explains. “The aim is to end acts of extortion and terrorism and to curb crime. And Mosul’s citizens were ordered to comply with this decision – so they’ve been forced to install the cameras and pay for the installation.”
It had taken some time for things to start happening because some of the officials involved were against it. “It adds new burdens on locals,” al-Shammari says. “Army, police and other security services should be responsible for these installations.”
Additionally locals had had to pay for their own security cameras – mostly this involved an outlay of a minimum of US$400. Because the installation of cameras was compulsory, demand on security systems increased and prices more than doubled.
And there wasn’t much choice. “The police told all shops to install internal and external cameras,” the owner of another central Mosul coffee shop, Walid Hashem, recounts. “And they punished those who didn’t do this by confiscating their personal identity cards.”
Some of the owners of premises to-be-surveilled were also worried about the impact the cameras would have on their custom. But they soon found there was no reason for concern. As café owner al-Saffar said, there had been plenty of media reports on the importance of the cameras. “And soon people will just treat the cameras like part of the furniture, they’ll forget about them completely,” he predicts.
There are still plenty of problems to deal with though. Most notably, the frequent power cuts that plague most of Iraq mean that the surveillance cameras are hardly operating around the clock.
Additionally, “most of the products on the market are not very high quality and often the pictures they take are not clear,” one of the local sellers of camera and other electronic equipment, Al-Tutanji, says. “For example, recently the police recently made a big effort to identify some culprits in a crime and they displayed pictures taken by one of the surveillance cameras. But the pictures were so bad that they were of no use to anyone. The police couldn’t even identify the numbers on the vehicle license plate from them,” he exclaims.
Al-Tutanji sees other issues with the surveillance systems. A week ago his office was robbed and the police took the memory card from the camera that was operating that day. But there was nothing on it.
Al-Tutanji suspects the thieves simply erased the card. “The surveillance system is shared by four offices and it was installed in the external entrance. Nobody wanted to put the controls in their own office in case they were punished for it by terrorists,” he says, referring to the fact that camera sellers and camera users have been threatened by those who don’t want their activities watched. “So all the thieves needed to do was press one button to erase everything.”
Despite the various problems, the local official responsible for implementing the project still considers it a significant step in the right direction, that will enhance security in the area and that will be similar to the kinds of surveillance tactics used elsewhere in the world.
The official, who preferred not to give his name for security reasons, said that security or military personnel would monitor the privately owned and administered cameras in each of the districts they were in charge of.
“It’s true that the pictures are not collected on a regular basis. They will only be collected when there’s been a criminal act or a terrorist attack. But,” he argues, “the mere presence of the cameras will deter wrong doers. And police have already caught a number of criminals because of these newly installed systems in Mosul.”
During the interview the official’s mobile phone rang and he began speaking to the caller about different types of surveillance systems and their costs. After he hung up, the official revealed that the local authorities were reviewing proposals from a foreign firm to install camera surveillance systems in public places, such as main roads, to complement the previous project with private cameras. These cameras would be a security measure and offer traffic services at the same time.
Comments from Ninawa’s investment council indicate that the company offering the contract is most likely a Turkish one.
While the project to surveil Mosul through both private and publicly owned cameras still appears to require some work before its operating adequately, there is one thing that it has achieved. Because so many businesses have been forced to install cameras, there is less fear around the whole business.
In the past finding a seller, and even someone to install security systems, was difficult – such individuals hid their identities and their work because extremist groups might target them. But now there’s a sign in central Mosul bearing the name of one of the camera system salesmen, as well as his address and phone number.