At the United Nations’ COP28 climate summit in Dubai, surveillance cameras seem to be everywhere you turn. And that has some worried.
It’s unclear how the United Arab Emirates, an autocratic federation of seven sheikhdoms, uses the footage it gathers across its extensive network. However, the country already has deployed facial recognition at immigration gates at Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel.
Surveillance cameras increasingly are a part of modern life. However, experts believe the UAE has one of the highest per capita concentrations of such cameras on Earth—allowing authorities to potentially track a visitor throughout their trip to a country without the civil liberty protections of Western nations.
“We’ve just assumed at every point in this conference that someone is watching, someone is listening,” said Joey Shea, a researcher at Human Rights Watch focused on the Emirates. She and other activists operate under the assumption that having a private conversation while attending COP28 is impossible.
The cameras belong to an Emirati company that’s faced spying allegations for its ties to a mobile phone app identified as spyware. The company has also faced claims that it could have gathered genetic material secretly from Americans for the Chinese government.
That firm, Presight, is a spun-off arm of the Abu Dhabi firm G42, overseen by the country’s powerful national security adviser. More than 12,000 cameras from the firm watch the nearly 4.5 square kilometers (1.7 square miles) that comprise Dubai Expo City, including cameras bearing both G42 and Presight logos stationed above multiple entrances at the summit’s Media Center.
G42, also known as Group 42, and Presight did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, the Emirati committee organizing COP28 said an agreement between the U.N.’s climate arm and the UAE government calls for only the U.N.’s Department for Safety and Security to have access to data from security cameras in the Blue Zone, a large area where delegates negotiate, smaller meetings between non-governmental organizations happen and journalists work.
“The safety and security of all participants, including media representatives, visitors and staff, along with their data privacy, is of paramount importance to us all,” the committee said in a statement. “Any suggestions or allegations of privacy breaches and misuse of personal information are unfounded.”
Footage from the summit’s Green Zone, broadly open to the general public, along with the rest of the city-state, remains fully in the hands of Emirati security services.
Presight, which recently made an initial public offering on Abu Dhabi’s stock market, reached a $52 million deal with Dubai Expo 2020 to install surveillance equipment at the site ahead of it hosting the world’s fair, company documents show. Presight’s marketing material describes the company’s system as having “tracked and traced millions of people and vehicles easily” during that event and having “identified and prevented thousands of incidents.”
There were “zero cases of physical assault or attacks on any visitors – 100% secure,” Presight claimed.
At COP28, an AP journalist counted at least six cameras at the Media Center bearing G42 and Presight logos, some pointed over workspaces. Others sat outside along the route of a protest Saturday where some 500 people demonstrated.
Activists on Sunday largely declined to speak publicly about surveillance in the UAE. Some have been carefully flipping around their ID badges when taking part in demonstrations or have tried to avoid having their pictures taken.
Marta Schaaf, Amnesty International’s director of climate, economic and social justice and corporate accountability, told the AP the seemingly omnipresent surveillance in the UAE created an “environment of fear and tension.” She described it as more insidious than COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which saw suspected security service members lingering to listen to conversations and openly taking photographs of activists.
“Last year we saw very visible intimidation,” Schaaf said. “This year everything is much slicker. So it leaves people wondering and kind of paranoid.”
The Emirates’ vast surveillance camera network first entered the news in 2010. Then, Dubai police quickly pieced together footage showing three-dozen suspected Israeli Mossad intelligence service operatives, some dressed as tennis players, who assassinated Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh at a luxury hotel.
In the time since, the number and sophistication of the cameras has grown. In late 2016, Dubai police partnered with an affiliate of the Abu Dhabi-based firm DarkMatter to use its Pegasus “big data” application to pool hours of surveillance video to track anyone in the emirate. DarkMatter hired former CIA and National Security Agency analysts, which raised concerns, especially as the UAE has harassed and imprisoned human rights activists.
In 2021, three former U.S. intelligence and military officials admitted to providing sophisticated computer hacking technology to the UAE while working at DarkMatter. They agreed to pay nearly $1.7 million to resolve criminal charges.
Those charged accessed for the UAE at least one so-called “zero-click” exploit—which can break into mobile devices without any user interaction. That’s even though DarkMatter had asserted for years it did not launch offensive cyberattacks.
As DarkMatter faded out due to the attention, some of its staff joined G42. Among them was G42 CEO Peng Xiao, who for years ran DarkMatter’s Pegasus program. Corporate documents for G42 list Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the country’s national security adviser, as one of the company’s directors.
G42 was behind the ToTok video and voice calling app, which allowed users to make internet calls that have long been banned in the UAE. U.S. and experts warned it was a likely spying tool, which the app’s co-creator denied.
G42 also partnered during the pandemic with Chinese firm BGI Group, which is the world’s largest genetic sequencing company that had expanded its reach during the crisis and sought to offer services to Nevada. The state ultimately declined the offer after warnings from federal officials, the AP reported at the time.
The U.S., which has some 3,500 troops based in the UAE and long has served as its security guarantor, has grown increasingly vocal about its concerns about the country’s ties to China. That has even seen some pressure on G42. Xiao told The Financial Times this week his firm would cut ties to Chinese hardware suppliers over concerns from U.S. partners like Microsoft and OpenAI as it ramps up its artificial intelligence business.
“For better or worse, as a commercial company, we are in a position where we have to make a choice,” Xiao told the newspaper. “We cannot work with both sides. We can’t.”
—By Jon Gambrell, Associated Press