It has forever been the dream of almost every state, intelligence agency, empire and totalitarian regime to oversee the doings of all of their subjects, to detect any hint of dissent, to control their movements, to influence their thinking and even to peer into their minds. That dream has hardly ever been achieved, no matter their efforts and determination, not because of any moral qualms or principles holding them back, but simply because they lacked the tools to do so.
In this decade leading up to 2030, however, things have changed.
When the vision of 'The Line' – that revolutionary, green, eco-friendly, and technologically-advanced, 75-mile-long vertical city in the Arabian desert – was presented to the world in June, it was met with a variety of reactions. Many were shocked at its likeness to a futuristic urban environment seen in a science fiction book or movie, while others praised its ingenuity and breadth of vision, especially in terms of its planned full use of green and renewable energy.
There are others, though, who see it differently and have criticised the potential that such a city can have for expanding authoritarian control, whether that be under states or tech corporations. As a 'smart city', the Line and the broader NEOM megacity project will not only adopt renewable energy and flying drone cars, but will also be a key adopter of systems built upon the data of residents, systems which will know one's every move based on geolocation data.
Even the design of the city itself – despite the shiny reflective surface of the exterior walls and the gardens within – has been likened to a luxury prison, with a journey from one end to the other set to take 20 minutes, and with every amenity, necessity and service within five minutes' walking distance from each resident's living accomodation. The purported goal of such a vision is to save space and practically utilise it, but critics worry that it could directly impede freedom of movement.
The question, then, is whether that limit of space and distance will be voluntary or imposed. Will residents be subject to a curfew on the distance they can travel, as took place in many countries throughout the COVID-19 pandemic? Or will it be down to the personal choice and judgement of individuals? Personal vehicle ownership may well even be banned, as there would be no need for one's own mode of transportation in a pedestrian-friendly environment. Everyone would be equally limited.
There are currently other major smart city or area projects being set up across the world, from Telosa in the United States to the Tristate city in north-western Europe, all of which contain a number of the same characteristics as that in Saudi Arabia. Others include major cities which already exist but are currently having smart technology integrated into their infrastructure.
There have also emerged reports on the development of these cities – an example being the Melbourne Experiment Report – which serve as a framework upon which future sites are planned and built.
Outside of smart cities though, there are a variety of other developments promoted by international organisations which will contribute to entirely transforming the way people in most countries live, spend money, conduct their daily activities and travel. To concisely outline these developments and to avoid explicitly detailing each step, those developments can be summed up in the concept of the 'digital ID'.
Essentially the digitalisation of identity, the digital ID aims to compile all of one's documents – from birth to death, with every step of life and every achievement in between – placed into a single online wallet. In the form of an app on one's smartphone, or through a chip implanted into one's body or hand, the digital ID will enable its user to purchase things, travel through border control points internationally, and to display their medical records and requirements such as vaccines – all in ways that will make such processes easier, quicker and more efficient.
If this is sounding convenient so far, then perhaps it is and will be once it is fully deployed throughout societies and national and international infrastructures. Above all, it will undoubtedly make it easier for governments and state actors to track and monitor their citizens, that is certain.
An example can already be seen in a few countries which are early adopters of similar systems, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where citizens and residents are required to hold identity cards which are trackable through their chips. Microchips have also been introduced and offered to be inserted into people's hands, a technology which is predicted to replace mobile phones by 2050 and record our every move.
In his 2017 book, 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution', the World Economic Forum's (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab wrote that just like products or packages are able to be tracked through the supply chain with a chip or tracking system, so will humans. "In the near future, similar monitoring systems will also be applied to the movement and tracking of people," he wrote.
That is part of the dark side of such convenience, the sacrifice of privacy and self-determination for greater efficiency and centralisation. According to some, that is a necessary sacrifice for the greater good and overall security.
After the Saudi mother and PhD student, Salma Al-Shehab , was sentenced to 34 years in prison by the kingdom's authorities last month, it was revealed that a security or "snitching" app – Kollna Amn (we are all security) – was potentially behind her initial arrest, as it enabled other social media users to report her to the government over her apparently critical Twitter posts.
If those types of apps are terrifying in their capacity to encourage one to spy on and report fellow citizens, in some quasi-Stalinist attempt to turn the people against one another, then imagine the effects of a digital identity system implanted under one's skin and obligated to be used for every facet of life.
As the famed Israeli intellectual and author Yuval Noah Harari stated in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes, it will become possible in the near future to "hack" a human just like one would a device or operating system. Through that, it would be possible to "get to know that [hacked] person better than they know themselves. And based on that, to increasingly manipulate you." He explained that that would be based on "data about what's happening inside my body. What we have seen so far, it's corporations and governments collecting data about where we go, who we meet, what movies we watch. The next phase is surveillance going under our skin."
Harari also warned at the WEF's Davos meeting almost three years ago that "humans should get used to the idea that we are no longer mysterious souls – we are now hackable animals." While that hacking can be done for beneficial purposes such as better healthcare, he acknowledged that "if this power falls into the hands of a twenty-first-century Stalin, the result will be the worst totalitarian regime in human history. And we already have a number of applicants for the job of twenty-first-century Stalin."
The author outlined the picture of North Korea in 20 years when "everybody has to wear a biometric bracelet which constantly monitors your blood pressure, your heart rate, your brain activity twenty-four hours a day. You listen to a speech on the radio by the great leader and they know what you actually feel. You can clap your hands and smile, but if you're angry, they know, you'll be in the gulag tomorrow."
Putting aside such dark dystopian predictions on the future consequences of that technological adoption, there are a multitude of other major issues presented by the introduction of digital IDs. After privacy, the most prominent problem that we can already see today is the exclusion of certain classes of people from national databases and the system altogether.
That is the case in India and Pakistan, where millions are shut out from the digital ID systems, meaning they have no access to services, rights and even educational opportunities that those with a digital ID are granted.
Overall, the adoption of such systems by governments and intelligence agencies – albeit probably inevitable over time – presents the perfect tools for digital authoritarianism and state control with a greater reach than previously imagined.
The totalitarian dream may now be achievable, and with nations like the US, Canada, Australia, and EU member states setting into motion their own vision of those programmes, it is not limited to the Gulf or to Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.