ABU DHABI // Crime-fighting in the capital is increasingly widening its scope with sophisticated closed-circuit television cameras. And while privacy is a concern, officials are focusing on their ability to deter lawbreakers.
As much as 90 per cent of Abu Dhabi island is expected to fall under the public eye within the next 18 months, according to security analysts. Abu Dhabi Municipality already has 153 outdoor closed-circuit (CCTV) cameras in the city centre, with 83 at junctions feeding live footage to traffic and police authorities. The rapid expansion of surveillance networks is expected to surpass even Dubai's systems by 2012.
The capital is mounting hundreds of new cameras along gateways into the city such as Airport Road, Muroor Road and Khaleej al Arabi Street. The new Al Salam expressway is also expected to be monitored. "I expect nearly 100 per cent of the city is going to be covered soon, but it will be in phases," said Amr Mustafa, the accounts manager for City-Tec, one of the country's largest surveillance providers.
He estimated that roughly half of the capital's public spaces are covered by surveillance cameras. By comparison, he said, as much as 80 per cent of Dubai is being observed. "But there's a project running now that I think will cover all of Abu Dhabi with CCTVs soon." More than 30 of the new cameras line the central reservation along Muroor Road between 19th Street and Al Maqta Bridge. An additional 44 cameras were spotted along Khaleej al Arabi between 19th Street and the bridge.
The monitoring equipment is also being set up on several side streets and roundabouts, with the poles staggered roughly every 100 metres between signals. The municipality confirmed the new cameras are different from the existing CCTV system, and said they were not installed by the municipality. It was unclear who installed the additional cameras. "In two years, I think we'll have at least maybe 2,500 more cameras covering all over, with most of them specialised cameras used for watching critical infrastructure areas," said Shihab Shaideen, the vice-president of strategic sales at Emirates Net Systems.
"You can see these posts coming up right now. They're like lampposts all over the city. Those posts are for CCTVs in the city centre, and they're focused on both sides of the roads. Some might have special zoom lenses for suspicious activity where the camera can actually zoom right into the car." Such cameras in Dubai and parts of Abu Dhabi already have face recognition software, in which unique facial measurements of passersby can be scanned to identify people as well as bring up passport records, according to industry sources.
Rory Mallon, the regional managing director of the UAE's largest security solutions firm, G4S, has seen photographs of the new road cameras and said they appeared to be for monitoring rather than for speed detection. "I can see - a mounted stand typical of what would be used to elevate cameras," he said. "They may also be long-range 'fixed cameras' typically used in control rooms to establish how freely the traffic flow is at particular junctions or bottlenecks."
Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis, agreed that the new cameras resemble those used for street-level surveillance. He noted that without CCTV footage, invaluable clues that Dubai authorities now possess about the January assassination of the Hamas commander Mahmoud al Mabhouh would not have been attainable. Using footage that captured Mr al Mabhouh's movements through a Dubai hotel, authorities were able to piece together the events leading up to his death.
"There's a lot of questions and issues surrounding CCTV now, and a lot of people are asking questions and want to know more about the presence of cameras and what's covered and what's not covered," Dr Karasik said. "Anyone who commits a crime in Dubai should know full well that they will never get away without being seen." Since the assassination, hotels in Abu Dhabi have scrambled to upgrade their CCTV systems to be in compliance with orders from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
"What happens is the Ministry of Interior can view any hotel camera from their control section at the [ministry] itself," said Mr Shaideen, "and what happens in the hotels will be sending the feed through a very high-end switch connecting to the ministry." He said he expected Abu Dhabi's security systems to be as advanced as Dubai's in the coming months. Le Méridien Hotel and the Sheraton Corniche were among the hotels that expanded their surveillance coverage recently.
"Dubai is ahead for the last three or four years, but Abu Dhabi's hotels are all installing [CCTV cameras] now," said Mahdi Mohammed, the Sheraton's head of security. "Earlier last year, it was a decision made for all hotels to have CCTV cameras, and they'll be connected with the Ministry of Interior. We completed ours last month and now it's covered." * with additional reporting by Marten Youssef