Safety and Surveillance: Where do we draw the line for privacy?

Why does Mark Zuckerberg keep his laptop webcam covered? How do adverts for hotels in specific destinations start appearing in your pop-ups after chatting to your friends about their recent holiday – without you even touching your phone? Big Data and Internet of Things are phrases that have made their way into recent headlines, sparking debates about how companies and organisations are using our data in their surveillance of our daily activities. The use of artificial intelligence to make sense of all this data is already happening, and we can get a glimpse of the future by looking at countries that have already invested heavily in this technology.

Authorities in Abu Dhabi have found a means to benefit from their huge network of CCTV cameras through Falcon Eye – a surveillance system that processes live video to track the movements of individuals all over the emirate. Falcon Eye describes itself as “The Eye that never blinks” and with good reason: Abu Dhabi has thousands of cameras that can create what law enforcement have described as a “complete holistic solution.” There are enough cameras to cover your movements from the moment you step outside your front door. In other words – Big Brother is watching.

The Abu Dhabi government stated that Falcon Eye will be used in the interest of public safety, with the official statement given to Arabian Business saying that it will used to “help control roads by monitoring traffic violations while also monitoring significant behaviours in the city such as public hygiene and human assemblies in non-dedicated areas.” Abu Dhabi prides itself on its low crime rate – part of its appeal for the foreign businesses that its economy relies on – and is willing to invest in mass-surveillance in the name of safety. Abu Dhabi is an unusual case as Emiratis make up only 10% of the population. 90% of the population are also then ‘outsiders’ and excluded from any debate about privacy rights, and are certainly less likely to raise a complaint if they feel that their visa is at stake. On the other hand, the 10% Emirati minority may well feel that the benefits of keeping watch over the non-resident population that vastly outnumber them might be worth compromising privacy for.

CCTV city

However, when it comes to using CCTV as part of a mass-surveillance programme, conflict with the right to privacy is obvious. Those that live in Abu Dhabi cannot give their consent to be recorded by CCTV and cannot avoid it unless they plan to never leave their home. Similar debates have been had in India over Aadhaara 12-digit identification number issued to all Indian residents based on their biometrics (including fingerprints and iris scans) and other personal data. India has a much smaller percentage of foreign-born population than Abu Dhabi at 0.4%, making it much more of a case of the government keeping track of all of its citizens and has sparked widespread debate, with particular concerns over how securely this personal data is stored. While not compulsory, Aandhaar is necessary for most official processes, including paying taxes (which is compulsory) and marriage certificates, so there is really no way to avoid it without excluding yourself from society. Abu Dhabi is similarly imposing a system with no chance for people to opt out of the government storing the most personal data of all – their face.

With over 2 million non-nationals living in the country, this has big implications for international business working in Abu Dhabi. According to the new European standard for data protection, GDPR, mass storage of CCTV data is considered a high risk activity. Will foreign businesses still choose to have a presence in Abu Dhabi if they will be exposing staff to an invasion of privacy that would not be acceptable in Europe, especially given the rise in hacking that could expose personal data such as CCTV images?

As unsettling as it is for many Westerners, this mass surveillance technology is already being deployed. In London, the Metropolitan Police is looking into ‘smart systems’ to help them manage the vast store of data they get from their estimated half a million CCTV cameras. With new technology that can track targets even with poor quality images, the Met could pick out faces in crowds, detect movement and track suspects or missing persons across the world, which when used in an ethical and responsible manner could make a huge difference in the fight against terror and crime. In China, facial recognition is being used by artificial intelligence to track citizens’ movements in the interests of crime prevention. CCTV dates back to 1942 and has recently progressed rapidly in image definition, but coupled with voice recognition, data from the Internet of Things and social media footprints, governments (and others) can create a ‘bigger picture’ of our lives; a story rather than grainy black and white snapshots.
In the coming years, private organisations and governments are going to have to walk the tightrope between Big Data and privacy rights. As more and more governments implement programs like Falcon Eye, the citizens of each country and their politicians are going to have to agree on the balance between privacy and security. Given the historical cultural differences on privacy across European states we suspect that agreeing European-wide legislation will be a tough ask.


YUDU Sentinel is an app based crisis communication platform for the management of fire, terrorist and cyber attacks, or any other critical incidents. Crisis managers have immediate access to an independent two-way communication (SMS, voice, email and in app messaging) and can view key documents on mobiles. Sentinel is a cutting edge crisis management tool. Find out more at or contact us on Twitter @YUDUSentinel.

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