Last week, security experts and professionals throughout the Middle East flocked to Dubai to attend Intersec 2020, the world’s leading security, safety and fire protection trade show. 1000 exhibitors from 56 countries showcased their wares to almost 35,000 industry and government visitors.
If market demand is anything to go by, hopes for a more peaceable region in the new decade appear slim. Regional and international businesses compete to showcase the quality of anti-drone defence systems, explosive defence barriers, and ever more sophisticated surveillance technologies, underpinning a commercial security market growing by 16% each year and expected to be worth $8.4 billion in 2025.
Though familiar European, British and American exhibitors continue to play an oversized role in global security provision, especially striking in recent years has been the expansion of Chinese companies into this market. Consolidating on areas of China’s comparative technological advantage, particularly in artificial intelligence, machine learning and the so-called Internet of Things, Chinese companies that leverage new technologies to more efficiently organise security and surveil populations have increasingly found receptive partners in the Middle East.
Chinese companies that leverage new technologies to more efficiently organise security and surveil populations have increasingly found receptive partners in the Middle East.
This should be a cause for concern for those who seek a reduction in state-based repression and authoritarianism in the region. As a recent report by the Brookings Institute, an American research group, notes, the expansion of Chinese surveillance and security technologies internationally is an important plank in a wider push to export authoritarianism abroad.
The Chinese state enjoys capacities of control and observation that authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and North Africa can only dream of. Developments in artificial intelligence have allowed Chinese companies to produce increasingly sophisticated recognition and tracking technology.
Smart City programs, ostensibly designed to streamline the provision of goods and services in the country’s sprawling metropolises, help collect enormous quantities of information on the movements, preferences, and habits of citizens, and, in turn, crack down on disobedience and dissent swiftly.
Comparitech, a global cybersecurity firm ranks China as the world’s most extensive and invasive user of surveillance technology and biometric identification data
Comparitech, a global cybersecurity firm ranks China as the world’s most extensive and invasive user of surveillance technology and biometric identification data, a system which relies on recording and collecting physiological data of individuals such as fingerprints, retina scans, and in some cases behavioural characteristics such as vocal tone and walking gait.
The quality and invasiveness of Chinese technology in facial recognition is matched by the size of the Chinese market for such products. According to HIS Markit, a London based information agency, Chinese firms account for nearly half of the global facial recognition business. State media in the country boasts that China and Hong Kong possess over 20 million artificial intelligence enabled, face-recognising cameras.
China has put its program of mass surveillance into place in a particularly marked way in the western, majority Muslim province of Xinjiang, which a number of commentators have referred to as ‘the world’s largest open-air digital prison’. Mass censorship has been coupled with retina scans at checkpoints, forced instillation of government monitored navigation systems in cars, and the deployment of flocks of facial recognition enabled surveillance drones to cover areas not covered by CCTV.
Mass censorship has been coupled with retina scans at checkpoints, forced instillation of government monitored navigation systems in cars, and the deployment of flocks of facial recognition enabled surveillance drones to cover areas not covered by CCTV.
Yet as devastating as China’s surveillance state has proved in Xinjiang, experts fear that decreasing costs of Chinese surveillance technology, that state’s increasing search for overseas markets for its goods, and of course, a range of welcoming recipients, will make such technologies more widely available to political authorities and private enterprise abroad.
The Huawei Digital Transformation Showcase in Shenzhen, China's Guangdong province in March (AFP)
As a September report by the Carnegie endowment notes, ‘China is a major driver of AI surveillance worldwide’. Chinese companies including tech giants ZTE and Huawei, as well as smaller operators Hikvision, SenseTime and Dahua, provide surveillance technology in 63 counties worldwide. Exports of this technology have been especially strong in regions with high levels of political authoritarianism- a list topped by the Middle East and Central Asia.
Chinese companies including tech giants ZTE and Huawei, as well as smaller operators Hikvision, SenseTime and Dahua, provide surveillance technology in 63 counties worldwide.
The potential of such technology has already been seen regionally. In 2017, Israeli defence firm Elbit Systems was contracted to build a high-tech surveillance ‘smart-fence’ to separate Jerusalem and the West Bank, which relayed images of those near the border to a computer command centre for recognition analysis.
In March 2018, Dubai used similar technology to launch its so-called ‘Police without Policeman’ program. This program relies on mass CCTV, surveillance blimps and cloud computing to generate rapid responses to public disorder. In language typical of the murky world of security and surveillance, officials in the emirate claimed: ‘with the disruptive innovation that we propose through our new projects that deploy the latest technologies, we aim to scale up operational efficiency’.
Chinese companies, many of whom have been internationally blacklisted following their involvement in facilitating human rights abuses in Xinjiang are increasingly marketing themselves in the Middle East. SenseTime, one of the world’s highest valued and fastest growing artificial intelligence companies, which helped develop facial recognition systems for the Chinese government, announced its intention in July 2019 to base a regional research and development headquarters in Abu Dhabi.
Dahua Technology and Hikvision, other surveillance and artificial intelligence companies associated with the abuses in Xinjiang have opened subsidiaries in the Gulf and Turkey.
Dahua Technology and Hikvision, other surveillance and artificial intelligence companies associated with the abuses in Xinjiang have opened subsidiaries in the Gulf and Turkey. As an official statement by Dahua Technology notes, ‘with an expansive market in the Middle East, our human resources are in a constant state of growth’. Representatives from Hikvision conducted a 14-day tour of the region in mid 2019, speaking to commercial partners and government officials in Oman, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
Though not all uses of facial recognition and surveillance should be rejected, especially in a region plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency and security concerns, the powerful repressive opportunities offered by such technologies must be a cause for alarm.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Hong Kong and across the Middle East in recent months to demand a more prosperous, accountable, and democratic future. ‘Smart technologies’ which appear to offer public safety and streamline service provision may more likely become key assets in an ever-expanding arsenal of repression.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Al Bawaba news.
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