Who buys and controls the CCTV? Myanmar’s slippery slope to mass surveillance

Thousands protest against the military coup in Yangon's downtown area, Sule. CCTV cameras are installed on all four sides of the Sule junction

Photo: Thousands participate in a protest against the military coup in Yangon’s downtown area, Sule. CCTV cameras are installed on all four sides of the Sule junction, February 2021, Digital Rights Collective.

CCTV cameras are rapidly being installed and used across Myanmar with very little transparency around who buys them or how they are used.  Against the backdrop of the 2021 military coup, there is growing concern that the military are using these cameras as tools of mass surveillance to monitor and arrest anyone who opposes them.

In this latest report, Who buys and controls the CCTV? Myanmar’s slippery slope to mass surveillance,  ARTICLE 19 and Digital Rights Collective look at how CCTV cameras are procured and deployed across Myanmar. 

We find that decisions to procure and deploy these cameras have been made in secret under a weak legal framework and with no opportunity for civil society to challenge their use. This opacity has increased the risk for CCTV cameras to be used for mass surveillance.

We call on the private sector to respect their commitments under international human rights law and ensure that CCTV technologies do not violate people’s rights. 

Why should we be concerned about CCTV cameras?

CCTV cameras form the building blocks of smart city Smart city’is a term used by governments and companies alike to describe the use of digital technologies to that claim to facilitate and enhance public service delivery. They are usually made up of a mix of technical infrastructure like public Wi-Fi, surveillance equipment like cameras and sensors, smart identification technologies, etc. While many claim these technologies improve citizens’ lives, in reality some of them can easily be abused to entrench power. infrastructure. They pave the way for biometric surveillance technologies such as facial recognition, automated number-plate recognition, and emotion recognition. 

These technologies seek to control people and can subject individuals, and entire communities, to discriminatory policing. Ultimately, abusive authorities can use them to crush any form of resistance. 

Further, a lack of data-protection laws in Myanmar means that the collection, use, and storage of data is not regulated, and people cannot demand to know what information governments and third parties hold about them – or how  they use it.

As a result, the use of these invasive technologies provides powerful entities with carte blanche on how to analyse, use, and retain personal information. 

Crucially, we know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behaviour when they know they are constantly being watched. They are less likely to speak or behave freely. Mass surveillance is an abuse of power that limits progress for society as a whole. 

And CCTV cameras are the first step towards mass surveillance.

But aren’t CCTV cameras supposed to keep people safe?

CCTV cameras are thought to act as deterrents – reducing crime and increasing security.  

However, multiple studies have shown that CCTV cameras have little to no impact on controlling crime on university campusesR.V. Liedka, A.J. Meehan, and T.W. Lauer. ‘CCTV and campus crime: Challenging a technological “fix”’, Criminal Justice Policy Review 30, no. 2 (2019): 316–338. and limited efficacy in residential areas. M. Gill, J. Bryan, and J. Allen. ‘Public Perceptions of CCTV in Residential Areas: “It Is Not As Good As We Thought It Would Be”’, International Criminal Justice Review 17, no. 4 (2007): 304–324. 

What’s more, CCTV cameras have been used disproportionately to surveill communities that have historically faced discrimination. A. Rathi and A. Tandon, ‘Capturing Gender and Class Inequities: The CCTVisation of Delhi’, Development Informatics Working Paper 81, (2019), https://www.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/research/publications/di/di-wp81/; A.M. Alkazi, ‘Gated Communities in Gurgaon: Caste and Class on the Urban Frontier’ (2015), Senior Projects Spring 2015, https://digitalcommons.bard.edu/senproj_s2015/114; Amnesty International, Internet Freedom Foundation and ARTICLE 19, ‘Ban the Scan: Hyderabad’, https://banthescan.amnesty.org/hyderabad/

This suggests they can reinforce racial and ethnic profiling based on existing prejudices.

In other words, CCTV cameras don’t improve our safety as much as we think they do. In fact, their potential to harm is far greater than their capacity to help.  

Despite this evidence, authorities in Myanmar are using these false claims to justify buying and installing CCTV cameras across the country. 

What does procurement have to do with CCTV mass surveillance?

Several important details about Myanmar’s CCTV network remain unknown – from equipment specifications to extent of current use, accountability mechanisms, and the authorities responsible. 

The lack of published information on the procurement process highlights the opaqueness of decision-making in deploying CCTV cameras.

We find that, for the Myanmar Government, decisions to purchase CCTV were based solely on cost, rather than on safeguards for people. 

Transparency about the use and procurement of these technologies is crucial given how they can be used to scrutinise people’s everyday lives and their potential for abuse.

Public procurement is supposed to provide for the needs of a country’s people. So, decisions on government spending and accountability for operations must be made visible to all. 

Such transparency allows civil society to act as an effective watchdog, make recommendations for improvement, and bring this crucial area – where public and private sectors meet – under better public scrutiny.

“Given the transparency issues, it is likely that Myanmar’s future network of smart cities will cement opacity and unilateral action as a feature of their structure, unless a right to information law is put in place, and accountability and transparency mechanisms are implemented.”

Vidushi Marda, Senior Programme Officer, ARTICLE 19


According to ARTICLE 19’s Global Expression Report for 2021, Myanmar suffered one of the most dramatic one-year score declines on record, falling 34 points to a ranking of 140/161. 

Widespread peaceful civil resistance to the coup has seen Myanmar’s military use severe repressive techniques to brutally squash any dissent, from an increase in political murders to arrests of journalists, and complete communications blackouts.

Against this backdrop, there is a grave risk that the military will abuse invasive technologies to escalate its targeting of those who oppose it.

To push back against CCTV mass surveillance, ARTICLE 19 and Digital Rights Collective are calling on: 

The military junta in Myanmar to restore democracy and the rule of law and to immediately stop the purchase, development, and use of technologies that violate people’s rights.

The private sector to stop selling and deploying equipment for smart-city infrastructures to authoritarian dictatorships. They should also ensure the design, development, and use of smart city infrastructures adhere to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Risk-assessment reports and associated procedures to mitigate risks must be carried out, published, and communicated effectively.

Civil society and journalists to investigate and debate the repressive uses of CCTV cameras.

“In Myanmar, CCTV cameras are being weaponised to silence dissent. While the narrative of ‘safety’ encourages the purchase of these technologies, it is the ambition of surveillance and control that currently sustains it. It is vital that civil society examines not only how this power is wielded, but how it impacts dissent, and concentrates power across the country.”

Don Le, Research Assistant, ARTICLE 19

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