AI, brain scanners and cameras: the spread of police surveillance technology
A brainwave reader capable of detecting lies. Miniaturized cameras that sit inside vape pens and disposable coffee cups. Massive video cameras that zoom over a mile to capture faces and license plates.
At a police conference in Dubai in March, new technologies for future security forces were for sale. Away from the eyes of the general public, the event provided a rare glimpse into the tools now available to law enforcement around the world: better and harder-to-detect surveillance, facial recognition software that automatically tracks individuals in cities and computers to smash into phones.
Advances in artificial intelligence, drones and facial recognition have created an increasingly global policing activity. Israeli hacking software, American forensic tools and Chinese computer vision algorithms can all be bought and mixed to create a surprisingly effective spy cocktail.
Fueled by increased spending by Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates – the conference host and an aggressive adopter of next-generation security technologies – the event showed how mass surveillance tools that once thought to be widespread only in China are proliferating. . The growing use of technology signals an era of policing based as much on software, data and code as on agents and weapons, raising questions about the effects on people’s privacy and how whose political power is exercised.
“Much of the surveillance could apparently be benign or used to better a city,” said Daragh Murray, a law lecturer at Queen Mary University of London who has studied police use of technology. . “But the flip side is that it can give you incredible insight into people’s daily lives. It can have an unintended deterrent effect or be a tool of actual repression.
The gold rush was evident at a convention center in the heart of downtown Dubai, where uniformed police representatives from around the world rode drones that could be launched and powered remotely. Chinese camera makers have shown software to identify when crowds gather. American companies like Dell and Cisco had booths offering police services. Cellebrite, an Israeli maker of cellphone-breaking systems, exhibited in a “government area” isolated from the rest of the conference.
Other companies have sold facial recognition glasses and sentiment analysis software, in which an algorithm determines a person’s mood from facial expressions. Some products, like a Segway with a gun mount, have pushed the boundaries of practicality.
“The police forces today don’t think about the guns or the weapons they carry,” said Maj. Gen. Khalid Alrazooqi, director general of Dubai Police AI. “You are looking for the tools, the technology. .”
With its deep pockets, serious security problems and autocratic government, the Emirates, an important US ally in the Middle East, has become a case study in the potential and risks of such police technologies. The tools can help stop crime and terrorist attacks, but can also become an undemocratic buttress of political power.
Under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, often referred to by his initials MBZ, Emirati authorities have been policing critics and activists. Amnesty International and other groups have accused the oil-rich country of human rights abuses against adversaries, including using Pegasus phone spyware made by Israel’s NSO group. Protests and free speech in the authoritarian monarchy are severely restricted, part of what the government has said is an effort to tackle Islamic extremism.
An Emirates-based tech company linked to the country’s rulers, Presight AI, sells software nearly identical to products popular with Chinese police. At the conference, its software used cameras and AI to identify people, store data about their appearance, and track their routes as they walked through the event.
A lack of transparency and oversight of how surveillance technologies are used opens the door to abuse, said Marc O. Jones, author of the book “Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East” and professor at Hamad Bin University. Khalifa in Qatar.
“The region has become so secure, and under MBZ, the UAE has become so focused on security that there’s almost this fetishization of technology,” he said.
Cameras are particularly prevalent in the two largest emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dubai, which is flashier and freer, has hidden cameras in unassuming corners. In Abu Dhabi, the most conservative center of political power, cameras dominate the cityscape. The gray metal towers that support them in T and L shapes hang above the roads at predictable intervals.
General Alrazooqi, chief executive of Dubai Police AI, said in an interview that the cameras were part of a year-long campaign to become a global leader in police technology – even though the emirate , which has a population of about 3.5 million, is known for its low crime. In recent years, Emirati officials have visited police departments and businesses in China, Europe and the United States to seek ideas. Consulting firms KPMG and Gartner have been hired to help with the process, the general said. Dubai has purchased facial recognition systems from Chinese companies such as Hikvision and Huawei.
KPMG, Gartner, Huawei and Hikvision declined to comment.
“We pick the best practices in each country and try to perfect them and inject them into the system we have,” Gen. Alrazooqi said. He added that the “Chinese are the best” at computer vision and facial recognition.
The Middle East has become a “petri dish of different actors,” with China, Russia and the United States vying for influence through their technologies, Jones said. The heavy presence of Chinese technology – most of the cameras visible on the streets are Chinese – is a sign of the country’s growing influence in the Persian Gulf.
Dubai Police operates next-generation systems from a headquarters north of downtown skyscrapers and malls. One such system, a city-wide facial recognition program called Oyoon – Arabic for eyes – can extract the identity of anyone walking past one of at least 10,000 cameras, by connecting to a database of images of airport customs and resident ID cards. Police have also asked companies to provide videos of their security systems to a centralized government database.
“He watches the whole city from when you enter the airport until you leave,” General Alrazooqi said. He said the systems served the “clients” of the police – a catch-all term for the public. “People, they’re happy with it,” he said.
The technological capabilities were on display at a police command center, where officers in Dubai could view live camera feeds and the locations of all emergency vehicles on a giant screen.
“With technology and smart cameras, if you have committed a crime in a minute, I will know in which direction” someone is going, said Lt. Col. Bilal Al Tayer, acting director of the command and control center. .
One advanced tool was predictive policing software designed by engineers in Dubai with machine learning that identifies where thieves might strike next. Officials said its 68% accuracy rate doubles that of an older model. Inside some patrol cars, mapping software gives officers specific routes to drive based on crime data.
Another algorithm, based on car accident records, has predicted the approximately 4,000 most dangerous drivers in Dubai, who will receive text message reminders to drive carefully. The most represented category of poor drivers was older Emirati men, followed by older South Asian men. (Nationality is a factor for the algorithm.)
At the Dubai Police Fair, officials from the Emirates Interior Ministry, which oversees state security and has access to all police cameras, demonstrated how, with a tablet, they could scan iris of conference attendees and get information on when they entered the country, along with a recent customs photo. Also on display was a helmet that was supposed to detect when a part of the brain relating to memories is activated, which a ministry official said was useful during interrogations to determine if a suspect was lying.
Lt. Gen. Abdullah Khalifa Al Marri, Commander-in-Chief of Dubai Police, strolled among the stands during the conference. The new capabilities on display, intrusive as they are, are a way to achieve a utopian and long-elusive goal of “zero crime,” he said.
“We don’t break people’s privacy,” he added. “We’re just watching.”
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