Last week, the Associated Press reported that efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to combat coronavirus had “renewed questions about mass surveillance” in the Middle Eastern federation of sheikhdoms.
Believed to have “one of the highest per capita concentrations of surveillance cameras in the world,” the UAE is well poised to use the current pandemic to eviscerate civil liberties — not that there are really any to speak of in the first place.
The slightest criticism of the government can get you imprisoned, tortured, or disappeared; talking about human rights is a particularly dangerous pastime. In a country of obscene material wealth and malls with ski slopes, ubiquitous surveillance — of both physical movement and personal communications — means that freedom of speech, expression, association, and thought are practically nonexistent luxuries.
The AP report notes that, in May, the Dubai police announced the local surveillance camera system would start checking temperatures and ensuring social distancing. An experiment for thermal helmet cameras for police officers is underway, too, while “‘disinfection gates,’ which fog chemicals on people, similarly use thermal cameras that also can record and upload their data.” And as pleasant as fogging chemicals sound, there’s more: “Nothing prevents these additional cameras and their data from being fed into wider facial recognition databases.”
Having had the misfortune to find myself in the Emirates on a smattering of occasions, I can confirm the distinctly criminalizing sensation of having security cameras pointed at you from every direction. In fact, the UAE is one of the few places on earth where a mere few minutes in the country was enough to convince me that human existence is itself one big cruel experiment.
But why the need for such overzealous surveillance in what the Boston Consulting Group determined to be “one of the happiest countries in the world” last year? In 2018, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network similarly ranked the UAE twentieth out of 156 nations in its World Happiness Report, and the country boasts not only a minister of state for happiness and wellbeing but also a National Program for Happiness and Positivity, a National Charter for Happiness, and an Emirates Center for Happiness Research.
To be sure, the equation of happiness with glitzy skyscrapers, luxury malls, and the eradication of rights is convenient for validating the international capitalist system. Even better when the happy nation in question is a key US ally, a major purchaser of US weapons, and a base for thousands of US troops.
As for the various unfortunate demographics on the receiving end of Emirati “happiness,” these range from imprisoned dissidents to viciously abused migrant workers to Yemenis now in their sixth year of Saudi/Emirati-led slaughter in their country, where the Emiratis have also overseen numerous prisons-turned-torture centers — some of them specializing in sexual torture. Anyway, nothing a ban on government criticism and some maniacal mass surveillance can’t take care of.
The United States has much to do with the landscape of oppression in the UAE — and I’m not just talking about Erik Prince, Blackwater founder and former BFF of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The princely introduction took place, the Intercept recalls, after Prince pitched the idea of “an agricultural crop duster modified with surveillance and laser-guided munitions” to the UAE government. Subsequent visions included the infamous secret mercenary army he set up to “serve as a presidential guard for the Emirati monarchies and help quell any internal unrest.”
Then there’s Project Raven, a secret operation involving former US intelligence personnel and presided over by an American cybersecurity contractor before being transferred in 2016 to the control of the super-sketchy Emirati firm DarkMatter, described by an Italian hacker-turned-security researcher recruited for a job there as “big brother on steroids.” Reportedly, DarkMatter’s expertise lies in its ability to track and hack anyone anywhere in the UAE.
According to a Reuters exposé on Project Raven, meanwhile, “surveillance techniques taught by the NSA were central to the UAE’s efforts to monitor opponents,” and the initiative entailed going after not only the perennial “terrorist” enemy but also human rights activists, dissidents, “foreign government agencies,” and even US citizens — which is what prompted certain wannabe scrupulous American spies employed by the project to come forward with incriminating details.
Naturally, non-American victims of surveillance operations were considerably less deserving of sympathy, as underscored in a charming quote from one such spy: “Some days it was hard to swallow, like [when you target] a 16-year-old kid on Twitter… But it’s an intelligence mission, you are an intelligence operative. I never made it personal.”
And what do you know: former Israeli military intelligence operatives have also been on board at DarkMatter. This information was reported in a December New York Times article on ToTok, an Emirati messaging app that was in reality a “spying tool… used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.”
Although Israeli-Emirati ties are still not publicly legit in the UAE given Israel’s habit of massacring and otherwise tormenting fellow Arabs, the de facto US-backed love affair continues to blossom — and is no doubt bolstered by a shared affinity for capitalizing on every possible “national security” excuse to further nefarious ends.
Israel has lent a helping hand in other Emirati surveillance endeavors, too — like Falcon Eye, a mass civil surveillance system in Abu Dhabi installed by an Israeli-owned company. In 2015, the Middle East Eye quoted a source on the function of Falcon Eye: “Every person is monitored from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it.” As it turns out, the author of the article — a young British journalist by the name of Rori Donaghy — was one of Project Raven’s key hacking targets.
Now, the AP report on coronavirus and mass surveillance in the UAE notes that Group 42, an artificial intelligence and cloud computing firm in Abu Dhabi involved in coronavirus vaccine trials, has partnered with Israeli companies over the pandemic. Group 42’s CEO, incidentally, is Peng Xiao, “who for years ran Pegasus, the DarkMatter ‘big data’ software.”
And as coronavirus provides a pretext for putting big brother on more steroids than ever, it seems there’s no end to “happiness” in sight.