By Julian Dierkes
Maybe this will turn out to be a longterm series of posts on “contemporary Mongolia dissertations I wish someone was working on”. On visits to Mongolia, I see the streets and hills paved with dissertation topics, so maybe I’ll remember to share some of these on occasion.
Noticing Security Cameras
The first time I was struck by arguments for surveillance as an apparent cure-all against all kinds of undesirable behaviour was on a policy-making workshop with members of the MPP youth organization in a Western aimag. We ended the first day of the workshop by challenging small groups among the 30 or so participants to walk around the aimag centre and to take photographs of “policy problems” they observed. They brought these photos back to the discussion on the following morning. In this and other similar workshop there were pretty consistent patterns as to the problems participants identified: garbage, but also traffic. When it came to the discussion of a particular curve where cars were speeding right in front of a school, one “solution” that was proposed was: surveillance cameras. I was floored. How would a surveillance camera fix speeding? By issuing tickets on the basis of camera footage, by visibly threatening repercussions to speeding? And, is that the most obvious solution to a traffic issue in a provincial capital? It did seem obvious to the person who proposed this.
Fast forward 2019 this year when I happened to look out of the window of a second-floor restaurant in Ulaanbaatar and noticed that I was looking at three security cameras that had been attached to the building across the street (a ministry) in a pretty rickety fashion. I was beginning to wonder what was behind this appearance of CCTV, who is installing cameras, who monitors the feed, and were there more cameras elsewhere. Well, there are, lots of them. So, I added the appearance of security cameras to my evolving list of things new to Ulaanbaatar. When I returned to Ulaanbaatar some weeks later I kept looking.
Noticed how many security cameras had gone up in Ulaanbaatar on last visit already. Look up and be surprised. At least this example ????looks pretty official. pic.twitter.com/YPE7sjSqNl
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) 3. Juni 2019
Then I kept looking and found lots of cameras in Erdenet.
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) 5. Juni 2019
23 (!) cameras in 15min walk to main square. And yes, there too. pic.twitter.com/5NPM5aS3Yt
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) 6. Juni 2019
Yes, really! Within less than a kilometer I found 23 security cameras filming the sidewalk and public spaces in the (otherwise) very pleasant Erdenet.
And Aimag administration as well. pic.twitter.com/fU5YsEgKBj
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) 6. Juni 2019
As that particular trip continued, I was shocked to find the security cameras equally omni-present in countryside settlements.
I have been wondering more and more about the number of security cameras that have been installed across #Mongolia, including in the countryside.
???? 2 cameras on Gobi soum gym. Are they storing gold in the building? pic.twitter.com/V6MUgz9EhV
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) 18. Juni 2019
What is going on here?
Some quick observations…
About these Cameras
One might distinguish between those that are official in some way and others that have been installed privately.
In my first conscious encounter with cameras in Ulaanbaatar as well as in the three examples from Erdenet, these seem to be “official”, government or police-run.
The other 20 cameras I counted on my brief stroll through central Erdenet were almost certainly private, that is installed by a business and (presumably) monitored by that business. They appeared over the front doors or on facades of banks, loan sharks, convenience stores, but also of the city library.
Of course, I didn’t somehow pull on the cables that were attached to these cameras to find out where they lead, but it’s probably safe to assume that the cameras on government buildings are either monitored by building security (if it exists) or the police, while the cameras on shopfronts etc. likely feed to monitors/recorders in the store or business where they have been hung. They could also be operated by building owners, I imagine.
There does not seem to be any particular compunction about hanging cameras where they cover a large area of public space.
Some Specific Questions
- How long have cameras like this been prevalent?
- Do they monitor or do they also record?
- Is anyone actually monitoring them?
- Are any Mongolians concerned with this kind of monitoring/surveillance?
- Are there any restrictions on filming public spaces?
Some Other Thoughts
The bigger question in my mind is: what is prompting Mongolians to think of surveillance as a solution to problems?
The heavily institutionalized response to policy challenges seems to be the threat of punishment. But is this a response to actual crime or misbehaviour? Are there any indications that the number of security cameras in Mongolia is reducing delinquency?
Could it be that increasing visits and other exposure to China – obviously a repressively surveilled society – is presenting surveillance as a viable policy tool to Mongolians?
What does the reaching for surveillance tell us about Mongolians’ perceptions of each others’ moral fibre? Should we interpret these cameras as rising social mistrust/declining trust?
An Anecdotal Aside
On a recent tour, we arrived in a ger camp near an aimag centre. It had been a hot day and we were looking forward to a cold beer, so since we had to get gas for our vehicle anyway, we thought we might pick up some beers in town. When we walked into a supermarket, we saw the large banner reproducing the law that this town was dry for one day a week and our mouths felt very dry suddenly. The first hope was that we might sweet talk the clerk somehow. Then we glanced around and found ourselves within range of 5, yes five!, security cameras and decided that all attempts to play a dumb, but thirsty out-of-towner would be futile. I guess cameras work!?