IBM Sells Face Recognition Surveillance to a Dictatorship: Report

President of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Photo: Oli Scarff (Getty)

The United Arab Emirates is one of the 21st century’s most modern and forward thinking surveillance states.

One of the strongest economies in the Middle East, the UAE has for years invested heavily in being in the cutting edge of surveillance and repression. The government has spent millions of dollars buying and building hacking capabilities that they’ve used to target victims like prominent UAE-born human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor who is now in a secret prison for criticizing the ruling regime.

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What’s next for the UAE’s surveillance hawks? For a savvy salesperson, the answer is obvious: face recognition surveillance.

The American technology titan IBM alongside Chinese tech giants Huawei and Hikvision are selling biometric surveillance systems to the UAE’s police and spy agencies, according to an extensive report in BuzzFeed.

The UAE is a dictatorship famous for the oppression of dissent, human rights violations, abuse of laborers and migrants, an ongoing ban on international human rights workers and a fight against freedom of expression. It’s also a wildly rich Persian Gulf authoritarian regime that makes a hell of a customer for companies willing to do business with dictators.

In the United States, face recognition surveillance is a point of serious controversy. San Francisco became the first American city to outright ban the government entities from using technology despite resistance from local police. Researchers have pointed out issues of bias and, more fundamentally, how face recognition can expand surveillance powers to an unprecedented scope.

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For longtime fans of IBM, news that big blue is reportedly intimately involved with a dictator might sound familiar. It will surely bring back memories of criticism of IBM’s reported involvement with Nazis during World War II.

“UAE authorities have launched a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011,” according to Human Rights Watch. “UAE residents who have spoken about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms or have left the country under pressure.”

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None of the companies involved responded to requests for comment from Gizmodo. IBM told BuzzFeed the company has “robust processes in place to ensure potential client engagements are consistent with our values, as well as US and local laws.” The local laws we’re talking about, of course, allow for brutal repression of dissent.

The values on IBM’s website talk about ethics less than they talk about business victories.

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Big American tech companies have seen a wave of worker activism and even some executives speaking out about the risks inherent in face recognition surveillance. Microsoft president Brad Smith called for federal regulation of face recognition last year and said he refused to sell the technology to at least one U.S. law enforcement agency. Other companies, including Amazon, have also called for regulation. Amazon workers have protested the company selling face recognition surveillance to police. Last week, experts filed into a congressional hearing to lay out the technology’s pitfalls and dangers.

While the noise around face recognition surveillance picks up elsewhere, IBM has been largely silent. When it does say something, it’s trying to fudge the issue.

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IBM claimed to BuzzFeed that its PowerAI Vision platform couldn’t “recognize individual faces,” as the report put it, and only identify “objects” in video. This, despite the fact that IBM’s own website talks about how its technology can be used not only for face recognition but also for sentiment analysis. “Demonstrations of the product show labels on both objects and human beings,” BuzzFeed wrote.

Hey, computer, does that woman look like a nasty dissenter? If anyone is reading this in the Gulf, the safe bet is to keep a straight face.

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About the author

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Reporter in Silicon Valley. Contact me: Email poneill@gizmodo.com, Signal +1-650-488-7247