Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity Neom is creating plans to harvest an unprecedented amount of data from future residents

Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity Neom is creating plans to harvest an unprecedented amount of data from future residents

Experts said technophiles would flock to Neom but warned about potential mass surveillance

In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that a new city would be built from scratch in Saudi Arabia's northwest deserts.

The city, called Neom, would be "a place for dreamers," he said, adding the $500-billion city would run by artificial intelligence and be funded by the kingdom's sovereign-wealth fund.

Early plans for the city imagined flying taxis, holographic teachers, and an artificial moon. But few concrete details emerged until January when Neom authorities announced "The Line," a string of settlements connected by a vast subterranean transport system. Beating back doubts over funding and feasibility, work is moving ahead, as it is on several of the crown prince's other pet projects.

Last month Joseph Bradley, Neom's head of technology, told ZDNet he wanted to collect 90% of available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of such data, Bradley added, without providing specifics. Bradley's interview is the first insight into how Neom will run. The Neom press office declined to comment on this story.

Current smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use data from internet-of-things sensors to perform actions like alert people when their bus is approaching or prevent water waste — but nothing in existence comes close to Neom's plan.

How 'Neos' works

Coordinating Neom's data-collection effort will be an operating system called Neos, Bradley said. Each resident would have a unique ID number, and Neos would process data from heart-rate monitors, phones, facial-recognition cameras, bank details, and thousands of internet-of-things devices around the city, per the plans reported by ZDNet.

For example, Neos would know if you had fallen over, and if you stayed down too long, it would deploy drones to your location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You wouldn't need to check into your hotel room online or at a desk, as a door-handle fingerprint scanner will suffice, ZDNet reported. "Neom will be proactive," Bradley told the outlet. "It can take action. And ultimately, it is personalized."

For some, such extreme digital intrusion is an ominous prospect, but Neom is interested in attracting those who embrace the technology.

Residents will have the option of choosing how much personal data they submit to Neos, Bradley told ZDNet, adding: "An individual's right to privacy is theirs, but the ability to use that information is directly correlated to the value they receive."

It is not clear whether Neom would require residents to hand over a minimum amount of data for basic functionalities.

Convenience utopia or surveillance nightmare? 

Experts described Neos as an extraordinary proposition but noted that the deep level of technological integration could deter many from moving there — and leave the door open to a nefarious exploitation of personal data. "Neom says you can opt in and opt out, but people will be skeptical of the truth of that," Jonathan Reichental, the author of "Smart Cities for Dummies," told Insider.  "We hear too many stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic but also had a camera in it that they didn't switch off."

Vincent Mosco, the author of "The Smart City in a Digital World," added that Neom would have to show total transparency over the data gathered. "We have no clear sense of what will be done with it," he told Insider. "From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know it's unlikely to be used for good."

Saudi Arabia's government has been accused of hacking the phones of journalists, dissidents, and activists, as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Mosco and Reichental both cited the case of a smart-city district that Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company, proposed for Toronto in 2017.

The project was scrapped in 2020 over economic uncertainties resulting from the COVID-19. But it was also mired in controversy during the planning phase, with one privacy consultant resigning over concerns over how residents' data would be handled. "You transfer that to a region of the world that inherently has transparency challenges already and it gets more complicated," Reichental said.

'People will value the convenience'

Other experts noted that for technophiles and those greedy for convenience, giving up personal data is not an issue. "We like rewards," Andrew Hudson-Smith, a professor of digital urban systems at University College London, told Insider. "People will buy into this as long as they're given an incentive for it. That may be better healthcare, which is what Neom has said."

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and member of Neom's advisory board, suggested that much of the data Neom plans to harness is likely already being taken by tech companies today. "People will value the convenience and the associated elimination of bureaucracy ... over sharing their digital data that many assume is already in the public domain given the technology that they use," he told Insider in an email, citing the use of smartphones and smartwatches.

For many, surrendering personal data isn't an issue, said professor Jiska Engelbert, a communications and smart-city expert at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Neom's residents are likely to be "the kind of people who say, 'I don't care, it will be quite impersonal, and if it is personal it will give me all kinds of benefits,'" she told Insider.

For other experts, the main barrier Neom faces is not a concern over surveillance. "The main challenge is to create a society in the middle of nowhere, rather than to make people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots, and AI," Federico Cugurullo, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, who studies smart-city ecosystems, told Insider.

By and large, experts are excited about Neom, though they add the caveat that smart cities rarely resemble their original blueprints.

Reichental said he was especially optimistic about Neom's health-focused ethos, given that most traditional cities place huge stress on their residents' daily lives. For example, Neom plans to be car-free, reducing air and noise pollution, and have abundant green space. "Every city eventually needs to upgrade, and we are desperately looking for good ideas," he said.

"This could create a bar for cities to learn what's possible, what works."

Source: Bill Bostock (Insider)

Photo: A composite image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a rendering of Neom's Line transport system.

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