Last Wednesday morning, I walked into a vision of the near future. Quite literally.
It was the imaginary town of Middleton. Or a chunk of it at least, a space covering around 50 square meters. Covered in various expensive, powerful surveillance systems, it had been constructed as an interactive advert for spy tech in the heart of London’s International Security Expo, the U.K.’s flagship conference for homeland security.
Much of the spy kit on show will be shipped around the world, from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, regardless of current anxieties about shipping to regimes with less than impeccable human rights records. Following Saudi use of American bombs on Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist killed in Turkey in October, there are now calls for a ban on all European sales of arms and surveillance kit to the Kingdom.
“Despite the Khashoggi killing and the ongoing war in Yemen, there is far too little scrutiny of British and American companies shipping surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia,” said Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now.
“It is very hard to believe that this kind of equipment is not being used to support internal repression, and under its existing rules the U.K. government should be refusing to grant export licences for it. Instead, human rights are an afterthought, if at all.”
An ‘intelligent’ manhole cover
Not that the salespeople around Middleton are going to stop pushing their wares in the face of activists’ frustration. On show was facial recognition from Japanese manufacturer NEC, promising “face search with databases as large as hundreds of millions of faces.” Radio Physics was showing off its British-designed MiRTLE 30 system, which uses a low-powered radar to detect concealed weapons like assault rifles, 3-D-printed guns and explosives from up to 100 feet away. Finnish firm Asqella had what appeared to be an oversized light-emitting bollard on display, though it too was designed to screen people as they walked past, looking for any dangerous hidden devices.
Turning one corner, there was something novel. From the outside it looked like any prosaic manhole cover. Yet, as our host informed us, it came replete with monitoring equipment ready to ensnare any would be criminal, be they terrorist or troublesome vandal. Embedded in the Hugslock Intelligent Access Cover & Support System (iNTACT) are myriad sensors that constantly monitor the local environment. They are capable of infrared surveillance and motion detection, alongside gas, heat and water level monitoring. If anything looks amiss, the manhole cover will text its operator, who can take whatever action they deem necessary.
Speaking with Hugslock’s chief tech architect, Adam Huggett, I learned that the system isn’t actually up and running in the U.K. yet. But he did fill me in on the manhole cover’s first customer: Saudi Arabia. Hugslock will be shipping 60 iNTACT units to the country as part of a smart city project. The company hopes to sign another order in January.
Denise Huggett, director at Hugslock, sees Saudi Arabia as attractive due to its predilection for smart cities. Metropolises like New York or London are trying to build modern tech into entrenched, old and inflexible infrastructure, making big deployments much less likely. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is building internet-powered cities from scratch.
“The opportunity with regards to smart cities is huge. Countries that are investing in improving their infrastructure through the smart city agenda or building brand new cities have set aside finance and construction time that cities don’t usually have, providing companies with a unique opportunity,” Huggett told me later over email. “These technologies would not be being implemented if it wasn’t for smart cities.”
As for any anxiety around working in Saudi Arabia in the current political climate, Huggett said that after a number of staff visited the country, she had no concerns. “The project is also an international collaboration with lots of companies from outside Saudi Arabia working together.”
Seeing through blacked-out glass
Hugslock wasn’t the only supplier around make-believe Middleton that was shipping surveillance tools to the Saudis. American supplier Gatekeeper Intelligent Security offers a system designed to detect driver and passenger faces within vehicles, even through tinted or blacked-out windows. When combined with facial recognition and number plate readers, it’s designed to help authorities track individuals of interest. It can also scan under vehicles and send alerts if there’s anything of concern underneath.
A company spokesperson at the stand was happy to talk about the need to build up digital barriers across the world (on Mexico, she said, “Build that wall, just build it”). And she told Forbes it was hard to find a country in the Middle East that wasn’t running Gatekeeper’s scanning tech, Saudi Arabia included. Dubai and the U.A.E. were two other customers among countless others across the world, she said.
As for the other surveillance providers on show, Japanese giant NEC has a significant presence in Saudi Arabia with a sales base in Riyadh. Radio Physics told Forbes in 2014 that Saudi Arabia had shown huge appetite for its brand of radar tech. Asqella, though, wouldn’t say where it sold its body-scanning service.
Saudi regime under scrutiny
With the Khashoggi murder, the Saudi regime is under considerable scrutiny. As are the country’s surveillance providers. In the last two weeks, Canada-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz and nonprofit Amnesty International both filed lawsuits against NSO Group, the Israeli iPhone spyware provider whose technology has been used against multiple Saudis living abroad. That included two associates of the late Khashoggi, an Amnesty employer and a YouTube satirist, Forbes revealed in November.
In October, the European Parliament called on EU nations to impose a Europe-wide embargo on sales of arms and surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia. The call came in response to the killing of Khashoggi, though it’s unclear what impact it will have on any sales. Though the Parliament approved a text outlining a ban, it’s nonbinding.
A month earlier, Global Justice Now announced it was planning to take the U.K. government to court over the granting of surveillance exports to a number of countries. Those included Saudi Arabia.
With attacks on many fronts since the Khashoggi killing, activists and politicians alike are hopeful the tide is turning against Saudi Arabian oppression. But if the International Trade Expo is anything to go by, the business of surveillance isn’t feeling the heat.