|Image: surveillance cameras on the street.

Dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia love smart cities projects — here’s why

Imagine being filmed 24/7. Knowing someone is watching you the whole time, would your behaviors and decisions remain the same? When governments or tech companies promote “smart” cities projects, they talk about how having more data about us could make things better.  What they don’t talk about is the way having surveillance technologies embedded in our physical surroundings would change the way we behave and impact our fundamental rights and freedoms. 

That matters, because these smart cities are no longer hypothetical. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they are the pet projects of dictators who seized power through coups. These dictators are leveraging the vision of future cities that integrate the latest technology — using sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), biometric surveillance, and artificial intelligence — to extend their power.     

As we explore below, smart cities like Saudi Arabia’s city of NEOM and Egypt’s New Administrative Capital could soon turn from utopian to dystopian projects. Here’s why “smart” cities are really surveillance cities — a dangerous tool for dictators. 

What is a smart city?

While there is no standard definition, there are common criteria to define such cities. In brief, they are cities that use sensors, surveillance cameras, artificial intelligence, IoT technology, cloud computing, and other kinds of technology for the management of urban life. 

Governments and private corporations use techno-optimist narratives to promote smart cities projects. To them, these cities are “smart,” “safe,” “creative,” “sustainable,” “futuristic,” or “dream” cities. Yet at their core, smart cities rely on the mass collection and processing of our personal data, typically carried out without our knowledge or consent. Regardless of the words being used, that’s surveillance.

Case study: Saudi Arabia’s NEOM — “the world’s first cognitive city”

In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the launch of his most emblematic and grandiose project, NEOM, as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. It is a megacity the size of Belgium, stretching over 26,500 kilometers in the northwest of the country. It is estimated to cost $500 billion, and its first phase is scheduled for completion by 2025. 

Reports describe the vision for NEOM as a city with flying taxis, cloud seeding to make rain in the desert, robot maids, dinosaur robots, glow-in-the-dark sand, a giant artificial moon, and state-of-the-art medical facilities. In this city, scientists would work to modify the human genome to make people stronger.

Other details make it clear the “world’s first cognitive city” will be “fueled with data and intelligence to interact seamlessly with its population.” The explicit goal is to “fundamentally change how its citizens work, live, and play.” To achieve this mission, every resident would be assigned a unique ID number,  to integrate and process data collected from sources like heart-rate monitors, phones, facial recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of IoT devices around the city. 

Many civil society organizations rightly oppose digital identity programs because they raise serious human rights concerns, including regarding the lack of evidence for the benefits they are supposed to deliver, and how authorities plan to safeguard the rights and data of users. Hundreds of people have signed the #WhyID letter to international stakeholders seeking clarity on how their rights will be protected before “pursuing the what, the how, the when, and the who of digital identity.”

Case study: Egypt’s New Administrative Capital 

In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi embarked on a smart city project in the  north of Cairo. The New Administrative Capital is envisioned to become Egypt’s new government headquarters, housing ministries, administrative and financial institutions, and foreign embassies. Spread across 700 square kilometers, it is projected to harbor a population of 6.5 million people, offering a “smart” digital infrastructure and experience. 

Promoted as “an advanced technological oasis in the heart of Egypt,” the city would let people use a one-stop-shop mobile app to pay bills or submit complaints or reports to city officials. Meanwhile the city’s public spaces and streets would be outfitted with a network of 6,000 surveillance cameras, intended to “monitor people and vehicles to manage traffic and report on any suspicious activities.” Every 250 meters,  the city would install a smart column with sensors, public Wi-Fi, surveillance cameras, and smart lighting. Some 12,000 sensors will manage lighting and track energy consumption.

This will reportedly be only one of  12 new smart cities projects in Egypt.

A dictator’s dream: how smart cities projects threaten human rights

What could go possibly wrong with two of the most repressive regimes in the MENA region  collecting  a staggering amount of data? Here are just a few of the threats people face: 

  • Mass collection and processing of personal data

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a track record of surveilling citizens, crushing dissent, and promoting intolerance for civil society work. This means that, even if a data protection law exists, it may not be effectively implemented or enforced. Saudi Arabia’s NEOM website mentions a commitment to respect the privacy laws it is subject to, but given the country’s poor human rights record and its use of surveillance technology — including the reported use of spyware against civil society and government spies infiltrating Twitter to get access to people’s personal data — it is fair to conclude the risk of the government misusing data is high.

  • Chilling effects and threats to free will — modification of our behavior

Your behavior changes when you know someone is watching you. Both Egyptian President Al-Sissi and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman actively muzzle dissenting voices. With mass surveillance built into a city’s infrastructure, it is easy to foresee not only further silencing of critical opinions and self censorship but also changes in the actions people take.

Privacy is a precondition for the full enjoyment of every other basic freedom. When people make decisions under the threat of exposure, free will is drastically diminished. As Frank La Rue, the former U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, declared, state interference or intrusion in people’s private lives “both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas.” 

The threat is not only the potential embarrassment of having your privacy violated and the details of your personal life exposed. In a repressive regime like the ones in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, state authorities could attempt to manipulate people’s data to control their citizens. 

The end result of pervasive surveillance like this is citizens giving up on their political freedoms and their right to dissent because they know they could  easily be recognized, pursued, harassed, or arrested. In such a context where surveillance is ubiquitous, self censorship becomes the norm and has a chilling effect on other freedoms such as the freedom of assembly and association.

  • Threats to people’s lives and livelihoods 

In a dictatorship, a smart city is often a vanity project serving to promote a regime that lacks legitimacy. The real-life costs, livelihoods, and well-being of citizens is often not a priority. In Saudi Arabia, authorities have forcibly uprooted local communities and demolished people’s houses to make way for NEOM. Thousands have protested their relocation, but authorities have responded with extreme violence, even going so far as to execute a Saudi citizen, Abdulrahim Alhuwaity, who refused to leave. Others have been arrested simply for expressing their objections to the project.

  • Threats to cybersecurity

Finally, the collection of so much data increases the risk of potential cyberattacks, especially if the data are stored in a centralized manner. Given the broad scope of data collection these cities contemplate, an attacker could potentially gain access to highly sensitive information, including your unchangeable biometrics, and use the data for identity theft and other crimes. They could sell any other information that is valuable, such as your address or location, to data brokers or other criminals. 

What the public can do to prevent pervasive surveillance

There’s no reason to accept ubiquitous surveillance as the norm, in the MENA region or anywhere else. We hope citizens, activists, journalists, and other members of civil society join the global #BanBS campaign to advocate for banning the use of biometric surveillance technologies in publicly accessible spaces. We also encourage you to join us in exposing the risks inherent in the development of smart (read: surveillance) cities. We must interrogate the purported benefits of digital identity programs, mass data collection, and pervasive surveillance, and advocate for a clear-eyed assessment of the human rights impact and consequences for the citizens. It’s not too late to make a difference.