- Saudi Arabia is building a futuristic megacity from scratch called Neom.
- The city plans to ask future residents to submit a large amount of personal data to help it function.
- Experts said technophiles would flock to Neom, but warned of possible mass surveillance.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
In 2017, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, announced that a new city would be built from scratch in the deserts of northwestern Saudi Arabia.
The city, called Neom, would be “a place for dreamers,” he said, adding that the $ 500 billion city would be managed by artificial intelligence and financed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
Early plans for the city envisioned flying taxis, holographic masters, and an artificial moon. But few concrete details emerged until January, when Neom authorities announced “The Line,” a series of settlements connected by a vast underground transportation system.
Defeating doubts about funding and feasibility, the work moves forward, as it does on several of the crown prince’s other favorite projects.
Last month, Joseph Bradley, Neom’s chief technology officer, told ZDNet that he wanted to collect 90% of the available data from residents and smart infrastructure. Existing smart cities use about 1% of that data, Bradley added, without providing details.
Bradley’s interview is the first idea of how Neom will work. Neom’s press office declined to comment for this story.
Today’s smart cities like Songdo, South Korea, use sensor data from the Internet of Things to take actions like alerting people when their bus is approaching or avoiding wasting water, but nothing in stock 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 identification number and Neos would process data from heart rate monitors, phones, facial recognition cameras, banking details and thousands of Internet of Things devices in the city, according to plans reported by ZDNet.
For example, Neos would know if it had fallen, and if it stayed on the ground too long, it would deploy drones at its location and alert emergency services, ZDNet reported. You wouldn’t need to check into your hotel room online or at a desk, as a fingerprint scanner on the door handle will suffice, ZDNet reported.
“Neom will be proactive,” Bradley told the outlet. “You can take action. And ultimately, it’s personalized.”
For some, such an extreme digital intrusion is a sinister prospect, but Neom is keen to appeal to tech adopters.
Residents will have the option to choose how much personal data they send 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 unclear if Neom would require residents to submit a minimum amount of data for basic functionalities.
Utopia of convenience or nightmare of surveillance?
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 choose to participate and choose not to participate, but people will be skeptical of the truth of that,” Jonathan Reichental, author of “Smart Cities for Dummies,” told Insider.
“We heard too many stories where we thought there was a sensor on a traffic light that was used to count traffic, but it also had a camera that they didn’t turn off.”
Vincent Mosco, author of “The Smart City in a Digital World,” added that Neom would have to show full transparency about the data collected.
“We don’t have a clear idea what will be done with it,” he told Insider. “From what we know about Saudi Arabia, you know that it is unlikely to be used forever.”
The Saudi Arabian government has been accused of hacking into the phones of journalists, dissidents and activists, as well as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Mosco and Reichental 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 due to economic uncertainties stemming from COVID-19. But it was also embroiled in controversy during the planning phase, with a privacy consultant resigned over concerns about how resident data would be handled.
“It transfers that to a region of the world that inherently already has transparency challenges and it becomes more complicated,” Reichental said.
‘People will value convenience’
Other experts noted that for technophiles and those hungry for convenience, giving away personal data is not a problem.
“We like the rewards,” Andrew Hudson-Smith, professor of urban digital systems at University College London, told Insider.
“People will accept this as long as they are given an incentive to do so. That can mean 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 leverage is likely already being taken by tech companies today.
“People will appreciate the convenience and associated elimination of red tape … rather than sharing their digital data which many assume is already in the public domain given the technology they use,” he told Insider in an email, citing the use. of smart phones and smart watches.
For many, handing over personal data is not a problem, said Professor Jiska Engelbert, an expert in communications and smart cities at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Neom residents are likely to be “the kind of people who say, ‘I don’t care, it’ll be pretty impersonal, and if it’s personal, it’ll give me all kinds of benefits,'” he told Insider.
For other experts, the main barrier facing Neom is not a surveillance concern.
“The main challenge is creating a society in the middle of nowhere, rather than making people comfortable with the idea of sharing personal data and being surrounded by drones, robots and AI,” Federico Cugurullo, assistant professor at Trinity College of Dublin. , which studies smart city ecosystems, he told Insider.
In general, experts are enthusiastic about Neom, although they add the caveat that smart cities rarely look like their original blueprints.
Reichental said she was especially optimistic about Neom’s health-focused spirit, given that most traditional cities put great stress on the daily lives of their residents. For example, Neom plans to be car-free, reduce air and noise pollution, and have abundant green spaces.
“All cities must eventually renovate and we are desperately looking for good ideas,” he said.
“This could create a barrier for cities to learn what is possible and what works.”