CCTV cameras will watch over Egyptians in new high-tech capital
Construction work underway in the New Administrative Capital, which will house government ministries, financial institutions and foreign embassies, about 45 kilometres east of Cairo, Egypt. December 5, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stringer
What’s the context?
Officials say the desert city's CCTV system will make it safer but rights groups and some residents are worried about surveillance
- City has surveillance system of more than 6,000 cameras
- Officials say cameras will tackle crime, traffic violations
- Spying tech poses threat to freedoms, say digital experts
CAIRO - The gleaming tower blocks and high-tech facilities of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's flagship new capital are a far cry from Cairo's congested streets and crumbling facades.
In the New Administrative Capital that is taking shape in the desert, lampposts double up as WiFi hotspots, keycards grant access to buildings, and more than 6,000 surveillance cameras keep watch over the first of its 6.5 million residents.
A single mobile app allows the city's inhabitants to make utility payments, access public services and register complaints with the authorities.
Some people think such features will make everyday life easier, and safer, but digital rights experts say the potential for surveillance is a threat to basic rights amid a broader crackdown on dissent and free speech during Sisi's 10-year rule.
"Planting surveillance cameras across the city gives authorities an unparalleled ability to police public spaces and crack down on citizens who wish to protest or exercise their right to peaceful assembly," said Marwa Fatafta, a policy manager at digital rights group Access Now.
"This is quite dangerous in a country where civic space has been under massive attack," she added.
A spokesman for the government did not respond to a request for comment about such concerns.
Similar smart city projects, from Abu Dhabi to Tunisia, set out to integrate advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, sensors, facial recognition and machine learning to fight crime, increase efficiency and improve governance.
But they rely on the mass collection and processing of personal data, typically without the knowledge or consent of users, leading to greater surveillance, rights groups say.
The risk is higher in places with authoritarian governments, Fatafta said.
"The Egyptian government is selling its New Administrative Capital as a smart city where people can have a better life quality - but in reality, they are building a surveillance city," she told Context.
The New Administrative Capital is one of about a dozen new smart cities projects in Egypt, and is spread across 700 sq km (270 sq miles). Housing ministries, financial institutions and foreign embassies, its surveillance system is developed by U.S. company Honeywell.
A command and control centre for the camera network can run "sophisticated video analytics to monitor crowds and traffic congestion, detect incidents of theft, observe suspicious people or objects, and trigger automated alarms in emergency situations," Honeywell said in a statement in 2019.
Government officials can access live feeds of the camera network from the centre, it said, without specifying which ones.
Honeywell will use "advanced Internet of Things (IoT) software and hardware solutions for a holistic city view that provides unified public safety services, coordinating security response units, city police and medical dispatch," it said at the time. It has not issued updates on the project since.
Honeywell's North Africa president, Khaled Hashem, and Khaled Abbas - chairman of the Administrative Capital for Urban Development - did not respond to requests for comments.
Honeywell sells mass surveillance systems worldwide, but providing the technology to the Egyptian government is "impossible to defend morally", said Tony Roberts, a digital rights expert and research fellow at London's Institute of Development Studies, citing the country's human rights record.
"Egyptian citizens have the right to privacy and to freedom of opinion and association. However, the state jails and tortures journalists and political opposition figures, using surveillance information against them," he said.
Officials have said the surveillance technology is aimed at detecting crime and enhancing safety, and that data will be protected by Egyptian law and international standards.
There has been a rapid expansion of surveillance technologies across Africa in recent years, with systems supplied by companies based in the United States, China and Europe, research has shown.
In Kenya and South Africa, where the media and courts are relatively free, civil society has been able to hold governments accountable and secure some reforms to surveillance practices, according to the African Digital Rights Network.
In Kenya, for example, the high court in 2020 ordered the government to introduce stronger regulations for a new digital identity scheme, and said it could not be used to collect citizens' DNA and geo-location data.
But in Egypt and Sudan, where the media and courts are largely controlled by the government, surveillance practices go unchecked, said Roberts, who has authored two recent reports on the use of surveillance tools in African nations.
Egypt has faced repeated questions about human rights under Sisi, a former military leader, and participants at last year's U.N. climate summit in Egypt complained that they were being spied on by the official mobile app.
"We found that governments are routinely violating privacy rights by committing mass surveillance on their citizens – and that they do so with impunity," Roberts said.
"Even when they are caught, there have been no prosecutions or anyone losing their jobs over surveillance violations."
Not something new
At the New Administrative Capital, located about 45 km (28 miles) east of Cairo, officials and residents have begun moving in - even as many Cairo residents say they cannot afford to live in the new city.
For Ahmed Ibrahim, a software engineer who bought an apartment in a high-rise block in the new city, the surveillance system is not worrisome - it is just another high-tech feature.
"What's wrong with having cameras across the city to monitor violations and eliminate crime?" he said.
"I trust the government. The systems will make life much easier for us as residents."
But for other residents, the surveillance system is worrisome.
"Such systems are in effect in many places around the world. But when it comes to countries with repression problems like Egypt, it becomes worrying," said Heba Ahmed, 33, who plans to move to the new city with her family soon.
"Nobody would want to be monitored, and have their private life exposed," she said.
(Reporting by a Context correspondent. Editing by Rina Chandran and Helen Popper)
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