Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The Persian Gulf emirate has launched a system that links thousands of cameras across the capital.
In late 2014, an Abu Dhabi woman in an abaya and a niqab—the black garments that some Muslim women wear to cover their body, head, and most of their face—stabbed an American woman to death in a shopping mall bathroom. The killer sped off in an SUV whose license plates were obscured by an Emirati flag. Though she and the plates were covered, Abu Dhabi police were able to capture her within three days. The reason: the masses of CCTV cameras in the city tracked her movements.
That most are deterred from committing crimes, knowing they’ll likely be caught, has given Abu Dhabi a reputation for being safe. This hasn’t stopped the government from going further in a quest for security. Last week, officials announced the installation of an even more advanced surveillance system, dubbed Falcon Eye. It receives a live feed from thousands of linked CCTV cameras across the capital, and can generate warnings based on the data as well as grant quick access to it.
Falcon Eye thus integrates information from a multitude of cameras, eliminating the need to cull information from separate devices. In theory, this makes surveilling people speedier, simpler, and even more Big Brother-like. A source close to the project told Middle East Eye that the system monitors “every person from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it.”
Much of the Persian Gulf press has focused on how Falcon Eye will aid in controlling traffic violations by, for instance, identifying those who commit such peccadillos as driving on the shoulder. It’s also being touted as a way to more quickly come to the aid of automobile collisions. Yet the deeper issue is that the emirate is worried about terrorism.
Aaron Reese, an expert on Persian Gulf security, says that Abu Dhabi officials are “rightly concerned.” “The UAE is a terrorist target,” he says. “The feeling is that it’s just a matter of time until something happens—likely at the hands of an ISIS member or sympathizer.”
The perception that Abu Dhabi is safe is key to its economic success. Losing this reputation would mean a drop in its number of tourists and expatriate workers, as well as a decrease in the business that makes it a global hub. As a result, the emirate’s leaders are willing to purchase elaborate new technologies in an effort to head off violence wherever it can.
While there are unique reasons why Falcon Eye is attractive to Abu Dhabi, the technology itself is not unique. A similar system is reportedly being tested in London—another metropolis known for its thousands of CCTV cameras. And city officials around the world are looking into what these types of integrated networks can do for them, from security to targeted advertising to energy efficiency.