A Bahrain Watch investigation reveals that two companies (Pelco and iOmniscient) are likely supplying Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior with a facial recognition system that could be employed to identify protesters and dissidents in crowds; the CEO of iOmniscient confirmed his company’s involvement in a report in the Sydney Morning Herald. Bahrain’s government has a track record of abusing surveillance tools to target human rights activists, lawyers, and members of the political opposition.
On 20 April 2016, the Gulf Daily News (GDN) reported that Bahraini company LSS Technologies has provided the Ministry of Interior with 2000 cameras along with “surveillance and analytics” software to scan for “persons of interest” in crowds. According to the GDN, the cameras are installed in “areas like Budaiya and Manama,” as well as around “key infrastructures [sic]” and buildings. The GDN reported that US surveillance firm Pelco supplied the cameras to the Ministry. Pelco is based in Fresno, California, and is owned by a French parent company, Schneider Electric. According to our investigation, the facial recognition software employed by the cameras appears to be supplied by a Sydney, Australia-based company, iOmniscient.
LSS Technologies WLL (Bahrain CR # 51132-1) is described1 as “a member of the Shk Ahmed bin Ali bin Abdulla Al Khalifa group of companies,” by its principal shareholder (AMJ Projects WLL). The company claims it is “currently executing one of the largest security contracts for the public safety sector in Bahrain.”2
Pelco is a supplier of surveillance cameras for facial recognition systems. Following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Pelco cameras powered the first deployment of a facial recognition system in a US airport.3 The system was deployed at security checkpoints in the Fresno airport.4 Previously, a 1998 report by Omega Research Foundation remarked on the role of Pelco cameras in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China: “USA made Pelco camera were used to faithfully record the protests. the images were repeatedly broadcast over Chinese television offering a reward for information, with the result that nearly all the transgressors were identified.”5
The Gulf Daily News article about the 2000 facial recognition cameras installed in Bahrain published the following picture, with the caption: “The crowd scan feature of the cameras being showcased yesterday.”
Gulf Daily News picture of the facial recognition software
We located a product demonstration video6 on YouTube that contained an identical frame to the one published by the Gulf Daily News. The video appears on the official YouTube channel of iOmniscient,7 an Australian company that sells facial recognition and other video analytics software.
Screenshot of iOmniscient’s YouTube demonstration of its facial recognition software
Both iOmniscient and PELCO have been working together since July 2009 to deliver a complete package of facial recognition technology to customers.8
Concerns about misuse
Video evidence has become an increasingly important part of convicting individuals charged with participating in peaceful protests in Bahrain. Police units often appear to have a dedicated cameraman when responding to protests, or making arrests.
Bahrain Watch reviewed court documents in a case where three individuals were convicted as the result of their participation in an apparently peaceful protest. The primary evidence in the case was a video, recorded by a police cameraman. The video shows participants in a protest, carrying posters and flags, scattering as police arrive on the scene. Police pursue protesters down two alleyways, and arrest three.
Screenshot of video recorded by police and used in prosecution
Four months after the protest, on 14 October 2015, a judge sentenced each of the three defendants in the video to three months in prison. The defendants were convicted of taking part in an illegal gathering of more than 5 persons with the aim to commit crimes or undermine public security. Bahrain Watch reviewed the case file, including the video, and did not discover any evidence presented of any act of violence or any incitement to violence.
In this case, police were able to obtain a conviction because they were present at the site of the protest, and directly apprehended the protesters. However, surveillance cameras fitted with facial recognition technology could enable the police to easily observe protests, and efficiently identify and indict participants, over a much wider geographic area.
Government Surveillance Abuse
The Government of Bahrain has a well-established record of targeting activists, members of the political opposition, and human rights defenders with arbitrary arrest and harassment. The authorities regularly conduct house raids, and it is normal for dozens of individuals per week to be subjected to arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance.9 It is therefore a cause of serious concern that the Government of Bahrain is investing in capabilities that could allow it to more precisely locate individuals who may be in hiding based on their political beliefs, or for expressing their right to freedom of expression.
The Government of Bahrain also has a history of misusing surveillance technology to target activists. From 2010 to at least 2012, the Government used computer spyware from FinFisher GmbH to spy on large swathes of Bahrain’s civil society and political opposition.10 The Government also may have been involved in attempting to blackmail Lawyer Mohammed Al-Tajer by threatening to release a surreptitiously recorded video of him having sex with his wife. Al-Tajer received a CD-ROM containing the blackmail threat along with the video. He inserted the CD-ROM into his computer. Logs leaked from a hack of FinFisher GmbH show that his computer was infected with FinFisher spyware on the same day. From 2012 onward, a group that Bahrain Watch identified as the Ministry of Interior’s Cyber Crime Unit sent threats and malicious links to pseudonymous social media accounts operated by activists, in an effort to silence them. Those who clicked on links have served prison time or were sacked from their jobs, suffered intimidation, house raids or beatings.11
Surveillance technology as an enabler of repression
A government can employ surveillance technologies for both legitimate or abusive ends. Bahrain has a proven track record of abusing surveillance technologies to target peaceful political dissent. The surveillance industry should be held accountable for selling its products to countries like Bahrain, which have demonstrably abused surveillance tools, and disallowed independent oversight from the media and civil society.
Facial recognition technology is a growth industry, estimated to expand from $2.8 billion in sales in 2014, to $6 billion in 2020.12 Such concerns will only grow as this technology evolves to capture faces at even greater distances, and with even higher precision.
- The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has documented more than 1,800 arbitrary arrests between February 2011 and December 2015. See page 7: http://bahrainrights.org/sites/default/files/BCHR%20Annual%20Report%202015.pdf