In the desert sands of Saudi Arabia’s deep northwest, thousands of workers are building a futuristic city that the kingdom says will be like no other.
Out of the ancient sands will emerge a high-tech urban centre called The Line: zero-carbon with flying drones for taxis, holographs for teachers and even a man-made moon.
The smart city is housed within NEOM, a $500-billion business zone aimed at diversifying the economy of the world’s top oil exporter, and the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. NEOM is financed, in part, by the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, and is due to be completed by 2025.
While NEOM will feature manufacturing and tourism zones, The Line will stack homes and offices vertically, and mine the data of its 9 million people, giving residents more say over their data and paying them for it – a world first, said an official.
“Without trust, there is no data. Without data, there is no value,” said Joseph Bradley, chief executive of NEOM Tech & Digital Co., which will oversee the consent management platform.
“This technology enables users to review and easily understand the intention behind the use of their personal data, while offering financial rewards for authorising the use of their data,” he said, without giving further details.
The Line is being designed with artificial intelligence at its core, with data used to manage power, water, waste, transport, healthcare and security, like many smart cities.
Data will also be collected from residents’ smartphones, their homes, facial recognition cameras, and a host of other sensors, a data sweep that Bradley said would feed information back to the city and help it predict user needs.
But the country’s poor human rights record does not bode well for responsible data usage or the safeguarding of individual privacy, digital rights experts said.
“The surveillance concerns are justified,” said Vincent Mosco, a researcher of the social impacts of technology.
“It is, in effect, a surveillance city.”
The Saudi Ministry of Communications and Information Technology did not respond to a request for comment.
WHAT PRICE PRIVACY?
An increased digitisation of all aspects of daily life has spawned worries about who owns personal data, how it is used, and what it is worth.
Some data rights experts, economists and lawmakers have proposed data dividends, or payments for data, which is often collected without an individual’s knowledge or informed consent.
But experts are divided over how much to pay, and if such incentives will create a two-tier system where some peoples’ data is deemed more valuable than that of others, further entrenching inequalities created by the digital divide.
“Tricking users into using a private consent platform does not replace a data protection regulation that protects people’s personal information,” said Marwa Fatafta, regional policy manager at Access Now, a digital rights organisation.
“It sounds like a privacy disaster waiting to happen. Adding money as an incentive is a terrible idea; it distorts the right of people to freely consent, and normalises the practice of selling personal data for profit,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has introduced a personal data protection law, and Bradley said NEOM officials are addressing privacy concerns.
What NEOM proposes to do is just an “extreme continuation of what cities do today anyway,” said Jonathan Reichental, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, who researches smart cities and data governance.
“We are a data-driven world; we are all consenting to data use everyday, and that data is leveraged by cities and organisations,” he said.
NEOM’s residents, by getting paid for their data, will have an advantage over those who don’t, he said.
“By not being part of that, you miss out on any financial gains,” he said.
Fahd Mohamed, a 28-year-old engineer who lives in Jeddah, agreed, saying that if he lived in The Line, he would consent.
“My data is already used by social media platforms, ride-sharing apps, etc,” he said.
“This system is better because I get paid.”
With the growing digitisation of public and private-sector services worldwide, come the promised benefits of better governance and more convenience – and increasing concerns about surveillance and privacy.
In 2020, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs shelved a plan for a data-driven neighbourhood in Toronto, while a resident in the Indian city of Hyderabad sued the state this year over facial recognition systems that he said were an invasion of privacy.
Users on NEOM’s consent management platform can decide what personal date to share, who has access to the data, monitor how it is used, and can opt out any time, said Bradley.
The system will also alert users if data is used without consent, or if there is suspicious activity, or a data breach.
By sharing their location, health and movement data, for example, if a user is immobile for too long, a drone can be deployed to check on them, Bradley said.
However, Faisal Al-Ali, a 33-year-old Saudi marketing specialist in Dubai, was not convinced.
“How can I trust that the data will only be shared for as long as I want, and only with the third parties or services that I have chosen?” he said.
“How can I trust that it will not be used for other reasons? It is not 100% trustworthy.”
LACK OF HUMAN INTERACTION
Surveillance may not be the only concern for The Line. In some smart cities, residents have complained about feeling isolated and bereft of human contact.
South Korea’s $40-billion smart city Songdo, for example, remains sparsely populated despite hi-tech features that allow residents to control lights at home from their phones, and that whisk away rubbish in tubes to underground sorting facilities.
This all comes at the cost of human connections, said Samia Khedr, professor of sociology at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
“Human connections are a key social infrastructure,” she said. “Complex data infrastructure does not usually cater to important social and cultural needs that are paramount to urban life.”
At least one Saudi citizen appeared to agree, urging investment in real life and in living cities.
“Is it not better to spend the billions spent on NEOM on upgrading the real cities in the remaining parts of the kingdom?” Fahd Alghofaili wrote on Twitter.
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