The AI (Artificial Intelligence) revolution is here, and it is changing everything from the way we write to the way we interact with technology. But not all change is good.
In 2015, the Chinese government launched the five-year Sharp Eyes initiative, vowing to build the world’s largest mass surveillance network. They have since installed more than 200 million CCTV cameras, extending across nearly every public space. The program goes well beyond the collection of basic visual footage. The authorities are integrating AI analysis, allowing them to pull up information on everyone they film. They are also monitoring smartphone and online activity, using algorithms to tabulate information and label citizens.
For years, this toxic mixture of AI and mass surveillance was unique to China. But as technology has advanced, mainland firms have begun to widen their net, hoping to turn a profit in foreign countries. This is especially problematic in the Middle East where authoritarian regimes exercise an enormous amount of control over the general public.
Saudi Arabia is hoping to top China’s AI and mass surveillance program. In 2022, their Council of Ministers approved a law that would require the use of security cameras in most public spaces, including communal areas of residential buildings. Their AI smart cameras can track when someone leaves their home, where they go, and what they are wearing—an important detail considering the nation’s controversial female dress code. Smartphones are also heavily monitored. The technology records and transmits everything, including highly personal information such as eye movement, facial features, and touch patterns. One app, Absher, was built to provide basic governmental services such as identification and permit applications. It also has a feature that allows men to track female members of their household. It will even send them a notification when the female leaves the city.
The Saudi Kingdom has turned data collection into an art form, bringing its AI and mass surveillance systems to the next level. When Crowned Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud took over as head of state, he began touting his new plan to build a futuristic smart city known as “The Line.” It will be a reflective, hollowed-out wall with AI-inspired architecture, flying taxis, and one of the world’s most sophisticated mass surveillance networks. The cameras will use artificial intelligence to scan minute details, including irises, retinas, and body heat. AI can analyze that data and pick up on specific patterns, which can then be used to gain a deeper understanding of an individual’s behavior and mindset. It is a terrifying proposition in a state known for its public executions and extremist policies.
The Saudis are already using AI and mass surveillance to target those who speak out against the government. In April 2019, they arrested Abdullah al-Maliki, a human rights activist, who they tracked using facial recognition. In 2018, they used AI-powered spyware to hunt down journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was assassinated inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
It is not only dissidents and protesters who should be afraid. Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system is built on their particular interpretation of Shari’ah Law, resulting in some of the harshest penalties on the planet. Petty crimes are met with public lashings. They sever hands for theft. Women are beaten for violating the state’s dress code. There are even laws that can be used to execute homosexuals, adulterers, and apostates, all of whom will be identified in greater numbers as the state’s AI systems evolve.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely considered to be a more progressive, laid-back nation. Their financial and commercial center, Dubai, is a playground for the rich, where head scarves can typically be worn without the more conservative abaya. But behind the city’s chic façade—hidden in incognito corners—one can find more than 35,000 smart cameras, all linked to government databases. The second a person passes by a lens, the camera can pull up their passport information.
In Abu Dhabi, the nation’s capital, they use a satellite surveillance system known as Falcon Eye, which monitors individuals from the moment they step outside their door to the moment they come back home. All social and behavioral patterns are analyzed by artificial intelligence, capable of determining an individual’s driving habits, their likelihood of committing a crime, and even their loyalty towards the government, among countless other things.
The UAE’s surveillance programs extend to all aspects of life, including social media, where they employ artificial intelligence systems that can analyze online images, videos, and sound. They can even detect irony and sarcasm in posts using sentiment analysis.
The UAE justifies its programs using rhetoric about geopolitical threats and the war on crime. When Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, was asked about his government’s surveillance network, he replied, “We live in a very difficult part of the world. We have to protect ourselves.” While this might be true, the UAE’s human rights record is just as abhorrent as Saudi Arabia’s. Dissidents are often arrested for speaking out against the government, and artificial intelligence has been integral in monitoring their activities.
It has been said that the UAE is obsessed with everything modern—phones, tablets, and computers. They are a nation of wealth, and they like their toys as do the police. This was readily apparent at a Dubai police conference in March of this year where Chinese tech companies showed off their latest gadgets.
These companies showcased lie-detecting brain scanners, AI sensors, and smart drones. They even revealed facial recognition glasses. The conference suggested a new type of policing, based on data and code, where predictive analytics could be used to stop crimes before they happen—and not just in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Both AI and mass surveillance are spreading throughout the Middle East—in Qatar, Bahrain, and Israel—due in large part to exports from mainland China.
China’s prowess in the field is undeniable. In fact, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE receive a significant portion of their equipment from the Chinese tech firm Hikvision, which is one of the world’s leading smart camera manufacturers. There have also been reports that Huawei, a tech giant known for bugging its American smartphones, signed a deal to help to build a surveillance network in Dubai.
China is giving Middle Eastern dictators the power to eliminate grassroots activism. With AI and mass surveillance, they can detect when a crowd is about to form, making it impossible to hold rallies. They can monitor political discussions and look behind closed doors. The people will not be able to organize, which means they will not be able to escape the human rights abuses that have become so common throughout the region.