AI, brain scans and cameras: the spread of police surveillance technology
A brain wave reader that can spot lies. Tiny cameras inside e-cigarette pens and disposable coffee cups. Large cameras that zoom in over a kilometer to capture faces and license plates.
At a police conference in Dubai in March, new technologies for future security forces were sold. Out of the public eye, the event was a rare showcase of the tools law enforcement around the world now has at its disposal: better, harder-to-detect surveillance, facial recognition software that automatically tracks individuals across cities and computer hacking into phones.
Advances in artificial intelligence, drones and facial recognition have created an increasingly global police surveillance business. Israeli hacking software, American investigative tools and Chinese computer vision algorithms can all be purchased and mixed together for a surprisingly effective interception cocktail.
Driven by a surge in spending in Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates — host of the conference and active adopter of next-generation security technology — the event showed a proliferation of mass surveillance tools once thought to be widely used only in China. These The growing use of technology has marked an era of policing based on software, data and code, as well as officers and weapons, raising questions about the impact on people’s privacy and how political power is wielded.
“A lot of surveillance can be benign on the surface, or used to improve cities,” said Daragh Murray, a senior law lecturer at Queen Mary University in London who studies police use of technology. “But the flip side of the coin is that it can give you uncanny insight into people’s day-to-day lives. That could have an unexpected chilling effect, or be a tool of actual repression.”
The gold rush is evident at a convention center in downtown Dubai, where uniformed police representatives from around the world browse drones that can be activated and activated remotely. A Chinese camera maker showed off software that recognizes when crowds gather. US companies such as Dell and Cisco have booths offering police services. Cellebrite, an Israeli maker of mobile phone hacking systems, exhibited in a “government area” that was cut off from the rest of the conference.
Other companies sell facial-recognition glasses and emotion-analysis software, in which algorithms determine a person’s mood based on facial expressions. Some products, like the Segway with a rifle mount, push the limits of practicality.
“Today, police forces don’t think about the guns or weapons they carry,” said Major General Khalid Alrazooqi, director of AI at Dubai Police. “You’re looking for tools, technology”
With its deep pockets, serious security challenges and authoritarian government, the UAE, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, has become a case study in the potential and risks of such policing technology. These tools can help deter crime and terrorist attacks, but can also serve as undemocratic pillars of political power.
Under Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE authorities have been spying on critics and activists. Amnesty International and others have accused the oil-rich nation of human rights abuses against rivals, including using Pegasus phone spying software made by Israel’s NSO Group. Protests and free speech are severely restricted in the authoritarian monarchy, with part of what the government says aimed at combating Islamic extremism.
Presight AI, a tech company based in the United Arab Emirates with ties to the country’s leadership, sells software nearly identical to that popular with Chinese police. At conferences, its software uses cameras and artificial intelligence to recognize people, store data about their appearance and track their routes as they wander through events.
Mark O Jones, author of “Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East” and a professor at Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University, said a lack of transparency and oversight of how surveillance technology is used creates the potential for abuse.
“The region has become so safe, and under MBZ the UAE has become so focused on security that there is almost an obsession with technology,” he said.
Cameras are especially prevalent in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the two largest emirates. Dubai is more gorgeous and freewheeling, with cameras hidden in inconspicuous corners. In Abu Dhabi, the more conservative center of political power, cameras dominate the cityscape. The gray metal towers that support them are T- and L-shaped, suspended from the road at predictable intervals.
General Alrazooqi, director of AI at Dubai Police, said in an interview that the cameras are part of a years-long campaign to become a global leader in policing technology — despite the emirate’s population of about two million. 3.5 million, known for its low crime rate. In recent years, UAE officials have visited police departments and companies in China, Europe and the United States for advice. They hired consulting firms KPMG and Gartner 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 all declined to comment.
“We take the best practices in each country and try to refine them and inject them into our existing systems,” Gen. Alrazooqi said. He added that when it comes to computer vision and facial recognition, “the Chinese are the best. “.
The Middle East has become “a petri dish of different players,” Jones said, with China, Russia and the United States vying for influence through their respective technologies. The profuse presence of Chinese technology — most of the cameras visible on the street are Chinese — is a sign of the country’s rising influence in the Persian Gulf.
Dubai Police runs the next-generation system at its headquarters north of downtown skyscrapers and shopping malls. One such system is a citywide facial recognition program called Oyoon (Arabic for eye), which can extract the identity of anyone who passes one of at least 10,000 cameras and link it to images in airport customs and national ID cards database. Police are also asking businesses to provide video from their security systems to a central government database.
“It’s monitoring the entire city from the moment you enter the airport until you leave,” General Alrazooqi said. These systems, he said, serve the police’s “customers” — collectively, the public. “People, they’re happy about it,” he said.
The technological capabilities were showcased at the police command center, where officials in Dubai could view live camera footage and the location of all emergency vehicles on giant screens.
“With technology and smart cameras, if you commit a crime in one minute, I’ll know which direction to go,” said Lt. Col. Bilal Al Tayer, acting director of the command and control centre.
One advanced tool is predictive policing software developed by Dubai engineers that uses machine learning to identify where thieves are likely to strike next. Officials say its 68% accuracy rate is twice that of the old model. Inside some patrol cars, mapping software provides officers with specific driving routes based on crime data.
Another algorithm, based on car accident records, predicts about 4,000 of Dubai’s most dangerous drivers, who will receive a text message reminding them to drive carefully. The most represented category of bad drivers was older Emirati males, followed by older South Asian males. (Nationality is a factor in the algorithm.)
At the Dubai Police Exhibition, officials from the UAE’s Interior Ministry, which oversees national security and has access to all police cameras, demonstrated how a tablet could be used to scan attendees’ irises and pull up information about when they happened. Enter the country with a recent customs photo. Also on display was a headset that is said to detect when parts of the brain related to memory are activated, which a department official said could be useful during interrogations to determine whether a suspect is lying.
Lieutenant General Abdullah Khalifa Al Marri, Commander-in-Chief of the Dubai Police, walked among the booths at the conference. The new capabilities on display, however aggressive, are a means to achieve the long-elusive utopian goal of “zero crime,” he said.
“We don’t invade people’s privacy,” he added. “We’re just watching.”